President Obama and coal: Still lots of questions

November 9, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

A man walks out of the Ohio headquarters of Mitt Romney campaign office carrying a Nobama 2012 sign, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, in Columbus, Ohio. Romney conceded the presidential election shortly after midnight Wednesday. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

As the week of President Obama’s re-election nears an end, we’re seeing all sorts of reactions about where the president’s second term might take the country — and the coal industry.

On the Facebook page of a group calling itself “Coal Miners Against Obama,” some folks are actually looking forward to the prospect of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul perhaps running for the White House in 2016. I wonder if they know or care that Sen. Paul was among the leaders of the Republican effort to block the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration from issuing new rules to protect miners from deadly black lung disease.

Yesterday, the Wheeling paper published a prayer for the country from Murray Energy President Bob Murray:

The American people have made their choice. They have decided that America must change its course, away from the principals of our Founders. And, away from the idea of individual freedom and individual responsibility. Away from capitalism, economic responsibility, and personal acceptance.

We are a Country in favor of redistribution, national weakness and reduced standard of living and lower and lower levels of personal freedom.

My regret, Lord, is that our young people, including those in my own family, never will know what America was like or might have been. They will pay the price in their reduced standard of living and, most especially, reduced freedom.

… Lord, please forgive me and anyone with me in Murray Energy Corp. for the decisions that we are now forced to make to preserve the very existence of any of the enterprises that you have helped us build. We ask for your guidance in this drastic time with the drastic decisions that will be made to have any hope of our survival as an American business enterprise.

And then last night, according to the Deseret News:

A Utah coal company owned by a vocal critic of President Barack Obama has laid off 102 miners.

The layoffs at the West Ridge Mine are effective immediately, according to UtahAmerican Energy Inc., a subsidiary of Murray Energy Corp. They were announced in a short statement made public Thursday, two days after Obama won re-election.

The layoffs are necessary because of the president’s “war on coal,” the statement said. The slogan is one used frequently during the election by Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray, who was an ardent supporter of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

As we wrote earlier in the week, the West Virginia Coal Association seems confused about who actually won the election, suggesting that it’s time now for the administration to reconsider some of its regulatory initiatives on coal. Friend of Coal Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., seems likewise confused, with his proposal that President Obama should start a “healing tour” of the nation with a visit to West Virginia.

The National Mining Association at least congratulated the president for his victory, but then added in a statement:

NMA remains committed to working with the administration and the Congress on an ‘all of the above’ energy strategy that includes coal, our most abundant energy resource … NMA will continue to pursue public policies that provide reliable, affordable energy … and the employment opportunities Americans need and deserve.

Writing for Forbes.com, Ken Silverstein predicted that Obama’s victory will force coal into compliance. Bloomberg opined that Tuesday’s election could give a boost for the notion of a carbon tax.

But really, it’s very far from clear what direction exactly President Obama is going to take on many important coal-related issues. We’ve tried to explain before in the Gazette how the president’s policies haven’t been nearly as extreme as the industry’s “war on coal” campaign would have everyone believe, and the administration’s actions — just one day after the election — to approve a controversial coal-mine expansion in Colorado show just how true that is.

In this still image from a BarackObama.com campaign video, President Barack Obama wipes away tears as he thanks members of his campaign staff and volunteers in Chicago, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012. The short speech came a day after he won re-election. (AP PhotoBarackObama.com)

Take the administration’s plans on mountaintop removal, just for example. It’s true that the president’s re-election means that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will continue to pursue appeals of court rulings that threw out its water quality guidance and its veto of the largest mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history.

But remember that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is still issuing permits, and only recently the Sierra Club and other groups took the Corps back to court over the agency’s refusal to consider potential impacts to human health from two new mining projects in West Virginia and Kentucky. There’s been absolutely no indication that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson will, if she continues in the post in another term, move forward with broader changes to reduce mountaintop removal’s impacts, let alone ban the practice. When’s the last time anybody talked seriously about EPA revisiting the Clinton-Bush weakening of the Clean Water Act “fill rule.” And only the most extreme pro-coal members of the House of Representatives really believe that any sort of “stream protection rule” issued by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement is really going to be very tough on mine operators in Appalachia.

It’s true that the EPA quickly sent to the White House for final approval some technical changes to the rule to reduce mercury and other toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants. But remember that those rules are being challenged in court, and it’s hard to say for sure right now how that’s going to turn out. And it’s also far from certain exactly which path EPA is going to take if it ever gets around to finalizing the first-ever national rules to regulate the handling and disposal of toxic coal ash from those power plants.

Moreover, the environmental group leaders I talk to, while obviously happy with the Obama victory, are far from especially optimistic about how quickly the EPA will finalize its rule to limit greenhouse gas emissions from new coal fired power plants — let alone extend that rule to begin reducing greenhouse gases from existing plants.

Finally, many of the post-election discussions of coal issues focus almost exclusively on environmental issues, failing to talk at all about coal miner health and safety. But the list of unfinished business for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration is far from short, and at least on the matter of issuing a final rule to try to protect miners from deadly black lung disease, MSHA certainly doesn’t seem to be rushing that one out the door. MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere wouldn’t even give me a timeline for any sort of movement on that.

Progressives who are thinking Obama’s victory means swift and sure action on these sorts of things might want to think back to the words of Steve Earle’s “Christmastime in Washington,” when he sings:

The Democrats rehearsed … Getting into gear for four more years of things not getting worse.

Writing for The Huffington Post, Rena Steinzor of the Center for Progressive Reform cautioned:

… I won’t mince words: the administration failed to complete countless rules that it could and should have finished in the first term. An April 2011 CPR White Paper outlined twelve crucial environmental, health and safety rules that the Administration should complete before this fall. Most have not been completed. The final version of a key EPA rule to reduce hazardous air pollutants from industrial boilers has been stalled at the White House since May. The Injury and Illness Prevention Program from OSHA is still somewhere in the works. While some of the rules were stalled in the lead-up to the election, others were blocked or killed much earlier in the administration. The White House famously killed EPA’s ozone rule in the summer of 2011, and relentlessly attacked EPA’s coal ash rule in the first year of the administration, sidelining it by May of 2010. The lesson for the future is that the pressure on the White House from industry is relentless, no matter the stage in the electoral cycle.

President Obama’s reelection brings a huge opportunity for progress on public protections, but not a guarantee. The goal in the second term must not be to try to go half way in the middle between industry and public interest advocates. That’s neither good policy, nor good politics. Rather, the goal must be to protect the public by following the law. The opportunity for progress in the next four years is immense.

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