Trading Jobs for Bugs in Coal Country

Mayflies are, by scientific classification, not long for this world. They belong to the order Ephemeroptera which means, roughly, "short lived, winged creatures." In their adult form they live for a day. During that day, the Appalachian mayfly's primary function seems to be: Annoy hikers.

They may soon serve a second, far more annoying function if President Obama's Environmental Protection Agency has its way. Emboldened by Obama's campaign pledge to "bankrupt" coal, EPA regulators have been aggressive of late. Bug protection may well give them an excuse to wreck coal mining in Appalachia.

Why? Because recent research suggests that discharge into streams of dissolved solids from surface coal mining in the Appalachian Mountains diminishes mayfly populations. That doesn't necessarily mean fewer bugs overall.

Interestingly, other research suggests that the total number of insects in affected streams is not substantially reduced. Hardier insect populations thrive in the absence of mayflies. Yet the EPA alleges that smaller mayfly populations are an "impairment" of "water quality."

In the past, decisions as to whether discharges from a proposed surface coal mine affect "water quality" were delegated to state regulators pursuant to the state primacy process developed by Congress.

Since Obama took office, however, the EPA has seized control of the permitting process so it can reinterpret the definition of "water quality" to better accommodate the mayfly.

Citing its concern for "macroinvertebrates" (i.e., bugs), the EPA in March and April objected to Clean Water Act permits in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky. In July, at the behest of environmental groups like Earthjustice, EPA revoked West Virginia's waiver to issue water quality permits without review.

It's only a matter of time before the EPA challenges the authority of other Appalachian states to regulate their own industries.

The permitting process for surface mining in Appalachia has ground to a halt. There's a backlog of hundreds of permits and the National Mining Association says the process has become a "regulatory black hole."

If this obstruction continues, surface mining in Appalachia is surely doomed: You can't mine coal without access to a mine.

That would be hard-felt locally, of course. Coal mining sustains more than 70,000 jobs in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky. Then there are the broader impacts.

Abundant, inexpensive Appalachian coal powers electric utilities in states along the Ohio River, which is why the region enjoys some of the lowest energy costs in the nation. Without Appalachian coal, these states will have to switch to more expensive fuels, raising utility bills for millions of Americans who can ill afford the expense right now.

This approach to resource management really is maddening. America is one of the few nations that treat natural resources as liabilities, not assets. Our budding rival China builds a coal-fired power plant every week to power job creation; we trade jobs for bugs. Is this the "change" President Obama had in mind?