On February 3, the Senate Environment and Public Works committee held a hearing on the Stream Protection Rule (SPR) being proposed by the Office of Surface Mining (OSM). This proposed rule poses the greatest and most immediate threat to U.S. coal production, and the Obama administration will likely rush it through the system this summer while the country is distracted by election year banter.
The SPR is an effort to rewrite an existing Stream Buffer Zone (SBZ) rule, which was enacted by the Bush administration in 2008 to regulate the impact of coal mining on aquatic ecosystems, particularly in Appalachia. It was later overturned by the courts, and OSM began the process again. A simple rewrite was insufficient for OSM and they have shaped this policy into a nationwide regulatory plan, despite differences in local geology, geochemistry and mining methods that vary with the terrain. These types of regulations are better handled by the states and the current policy acknowledges it.
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) chaired the hearing. In his opening statements, he summed up the situation succinctly. “OSM developed a rule for a state-administered program without adequate state involvement,” Sen. Inhofe said. “State water quality standards under the Clean Water Act (CWA) will be superseded by new standards that OSM creates. The Corps of Engineer’s permits under section 404 of the CWA will be superseded by new conditions imposed by OSM. A permit that a state coal mining permitting authority wants to issue can be vetoed by the Fish and Wildlife Service based on impact to species that are not even listed under the Endangered Species Act. All this federal overreach is going to impose severe hardship on coal miners and the states they live in.”
National Mining Association (NMA) President and CEO Hal Quinn praised the Senate oversight hearing for exposing the fatal flaws in the SPR and urged passage of legislation to block its implementation. “The agency failed its obligation to engage mining states in the development of a rule that spans more than 2,200 pages,” Quinn said. “Wyoming produces 40% of the nation’s entire coal output, and all of its mines are free of offsite impacts, but Wyoming was not consulted. The state rightfully objects to OSM failing to recognize regional differences that affect mining and reclamation while attempting to impose a massive one-size-fits-all rule on a western state — based on irrelevant assumptions drawn from Appalachia.”
A technical analysis of the actual impact of this rule showed that up to 78,000 coal mining jobs could be lost as tens of billions of tons of coal reserves would be stranded. That would be in addition to the tens of thousands already lost in the past three years. Sadly, even if the Senate would join the House in preventing OSM from imposing the SPR, President Obama would veto the bill. To survive, the coal industry would have to hope the next administration would overturn it or turn to the courts.