EPA Delivers Lump of Coal to Appalachia

EPA Delivers Lump of Coal to Appalachia

December 20, 2009
Originally published in The Richmond Times Dispatch

If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, the
Environmental Protection Agency would still investigate. This corny
joke reflects a sad truth: President Barack Obama’s overbearing EPA is holding hostage thousands of coal-mining jobs in Appalachia in order to protect an insect that lives for a day.

The EPA
claims that trading jobs for bugs is part of its proper oversight role,
but the evidence suggests that politics are at play. Environmentalists
are a very important voting bloc for the Democratic Party, and they
earnestly believe that coal is evil, despite the fact that it generates
half of the country’s electricity. That’s why President Obama promised,
while campaigning for the Oval Office, to “bankrupt” the coal industry.
He has since unleashed the EPA to fulfill that promise.

The EPA’s war on coal targets every aspect of the industry. Earlier this month, for example, the EPA
issued an “endangerment” rulemaking that gives the White House almost
unlimited power to regulate demand for coal at power plants.

While
the “endangerment” finding won’t have an impact for at least a year,
the administration has had more immediate success regulating the supply
of coal from mining operations in the Appalachian states of Virginia,
Kentucky, and West Virginia—the source of 40 percent of the country’s
coal. In this region, miners already are losing jobs, thanks to the EPA’s misguided intervention.

It started in June, when the EPA
announced that it would use its veto powers under the Clean Water Act
to hold up the permitting process for surface coal mining in the steep
terrain of the Appalachian Mountains. This is the first time that the EPA has used these powers since the act was passed by Congress in 1970. Also, the EPA
has waged a letter-writing campaign to state environmental officials
warning them that their standard for water quality is insufficiently
onerous for surface coal mining operations. Thus, the EPA has held up 79 permits.

These regulatory intrusions are unprecedented, so the EPA must have a good reason, right?

Wrong. In fact, the EPA is intervening on behalf of a bug.

Recent EPA
research suggests that discharge from “fills”—piles of dirt and rock
moved in the process of mining coal—hurts populations of mayflies, an
insect that typically lives for less than a day. Other research
suggests that populations of hardier insect species grow in the wake of
the mayfly’s decline, but this doesn’t deter the EPA.

During testimony before the Senate last summer, John Pomponio, an EPA official with jurisdiction over surface-coal-mining permitting in Appalachia, said that it is “critical that EPA re-invigorate its oversight role” in light of the mayfly study.

In practice, a “re-invigorated oversight role” means that President Obama’s EPA
has outlawed surface mining practices that had been acceptable for
decades. In this business environment—beholden to capricious and
arbitrary EPA rules—coal-mining companies can’t raise capital. After all, you can’t mine without a permit.

According
to Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), chairman of the House Committee on
Natural Resources, “The future of coal is at stake.”

In the short term, people are losing their jobs.

There
are more than 60,000 coal miners in Appalachia. Just this month, Consol
Energy announced that it would lay off 500 workers at a West Virginia
mine idled by the EPA’s actions. As such, antipathy for the EPA
runs deep in coal country. Rallies this summer in West Virginia and
Kentucky drew scores of thousands of miners and their families.

In
the long term, electricity consumers are the big losers. Appalachian
coal provides inexpensive fuel for power plants along the Ohio River.
It’s the reason that Mid-Atlantic states have some of the cheapest
electricity rates in the country.

There’s a historical irony inherent in the EPA’s trading jobs for bugs.

From
the 18th century to the 20th century, heavy industry—such as coal
mining—was the primary metric of a nation’s economic development.
Industry was exalted. To be industrialized was to be civilized.

Times have changed.

In
today’s America, heavy industry is considered “dirty.” Instead of goods
and services, the United States manufactures environmental lawyers and
government regulators.

Raw capitalism is left to the
Chinese, who busily build a coal-fired electricity plant every week to
power the production of exports for the global market. By contrast,
environmental lawyers in the United States recently celebrated the
100th scuttling of a proposed coal plant.

Talk about misplaced priorities.