What will Obama’s 2nd term bring for coalfields?

January 21, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

President Barack Obama receives the oath of office from Chief Justice John Roberts as first lady Michelle Obama (L-R) and his daughters Malia and Sasha listen at the ceremonial swearing-in at the U.S. Capitol during the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, Monday, Jan. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

If you were listening closely, you might have heard that the nation’s coal miners got a mention in inaugural poet Richard Blanco’s One Today, recited not long after President Obama was sworn in for his second term:

One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk

of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat

and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills

in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands

digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands

as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane

so my brother and I could have books and shoes.

But most people were probably paying more attention when President Obama said in his inaugural address:

We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.

There’s  been a lot of commentary in the last few days and weeks about what President Obama could, should, or might — or might not — do about climate change. I linked previously to Jeff Goodell’s Rolling Stone piece, but there were others out there, including this from Andrew Revkin at Dot Earth, this from Tom Zeller at The Huffington Post, and this from Suzanne Goldenberg at The Guardian.

Obviously, a lot of questions might be answered once we see what kind of appointments President Obama makes to replace top administration officials who are leaving, including EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Energy Secretary Steven Chu. For broader coal issues — especially mine safety — we should also watch to see who replaces Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, whose term has been a great disappointment on workplace safety, despite a rather fluffy outgoing interview with The Nation magazine.

President Barack Obama pauses with his escorts before walking through the Lower West Terrace Door on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Jan. 21, 201, for his ceremonial swearing-in ceremony during the 57th Presidential Inauguration.  (AP Photo/Jonathan Ernst, Pool)

On the other hand, the labor department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration started the new year strong, with last week’s release of its final rule to improve the Pattern of Violations process, a move that promises — if properly administered by MSHA — to toughen enforcement on coal operators who repeatedly violate the law.  President Obama’s re-election also presumably leaves in place here in Southern West Virginia U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, giving Goodwin and his team of prosecutors time to continue pursuing those responsible for the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, and perhaps set the standard for future criminal enforcement of mine safety laws.

MSHA chief Joe Main has also finally set an ambitious timeline for some other key rules — May 2013 for a final rule for proximity detection equipment on underground mining machines and June 2013 for the dust rule aimed at ending black lung disease — so it’s important to watch to see if the White House allows the agency to stick to this schedule.

On other coal issues, the EPA has already moved to further delay finalizing its long-awaiting rule on coal ash handling and disposal.

UPDATED: President Obama included a mention of Appalachian (though he pronounced it like an outsider) in which he said:

Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia, to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.

West Virginian and mountaintop removal opponent Maria Gunnoe cited this line and noted the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act, which aimes to deal with the growing body of science that shows residents living near mountaintop removal sites are at greater risk of serious health problems — including children who are most likely to be born with birth defects.

Not long after his first inaugural in 2009, President Obama spoke out about mountaintop removal, saying, among other things:

You know, this is one of those things where I want science to help lead us.

And on mountaintop removal, That aside, it still seems unlikely that the EPA or other Obama agencies will do anything until several key federal court cases are resolved. Oral argument is scheduled for March 14 in the EPA’s appeal of a ruling that overturned its veto of the largest mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history. Argument is tentatively set for late March in the appeal of U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers’ ruling in favor of the Army Corps of Engineers’ approval of Alpha Natural Resources’ Highland Reylas permit (keep in mind that case is before a quite different 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, changed by Obama appointees from the 4th Circuit that previously sided with the industry in such cases). And arguments have not yet been scheduled in the EPA’s appeal of another court ruling that threw out the agency’s tougher water quality guidance for Appalachian strip mining operations

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