Coal Tattoo

Mining lobby: ‘War on coal’ never resonated

There’s an interesting commentary from the National Mining Association’s Luke Popovich in the recent issue of Coal Age magazine about the “war on coal” campaign against the Obama administration and the recent federal appeals court decision upholding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to veto the Spruce Mine permit.

Much of the piece is an attack on the ruling (with no mention of the fact that the judges were all Republican appointees) and stripping industry of much-needed regulatory certainty:

… Now it will be not just coal companies that lack such assurance but all industries that use Sec. 404 permits. In one fell swoop, investing in domestic projects becomes as risky as investing in some banana republic or autocratic regime where assets can be nationalized and operations halted at the whim of officials beyond the reach of elected representatives.

Popovich goes on to insist that the “war on coal” campaign “was a battle cry of a determined but small army that lacked the firepower to win regulatory relief.” And, he writes:

… Anyway, ‘war on coal’ never resonated with much conviction among ordinary Americans. For them, the EPA keeps the air and water clean, their kids safe. The Appalachian permits the EPA held up, the Spruce Mine permit the agency yanked, the regulatory standard it proposed to slow greenhouse gas emissions and stop new coal plant construction — all that flew over the head of most voters who, let’s face it, know far more about the Kardashians than they do about coal.

So naturally, since arguing there is a “war on coal” didn’t work, the mining lobby is rethinking it’s strategy, right? Well, you might think so … but instead what Popovich proposes is an even broader campaign along those same lines:

… A ‘war on industry’ could become a more potent and plausible concern to members of Congress who can fix a bad court decision. At press time, Democrats as well as Republicans in West Virginia’s delegation were the first to promise legislative relief from a fine legal distinction that threatens coal and much more. Additional congressional members may join them as news of the ruling sinks in.

Aside from doubling down on a PR strategy that already failed, what the coal lobby is proposing here isn’t anything new. They already tried arguing that the EPA’s action to veto the Spruce Mine was an attack on all American businesses. For example, Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, said two years ago during a House subcommittee hearing:

The issuance of a federal permit should come with some certainty that the activity can go forward unencumbered but within the bounds of the permit, particularly those activities on private lands.  This no longer seems to be the case and it is going to have a stifling effect on not just mining operations in Appalachia, but on economic development nationwide.

The National Mining Association itself tried this argument the very day that EPA first vetoed the Spruce Mine permit:

EPA’s veto of an existing, valid permit for the Spruce No. 1 mine threatens the certainty of all Section 404 permits—weakening the trust U.S. businesses and workers need to make investments and secure jobs. The Spruce permit was issued after a robust 10-year review, including an exhaustive Environmental Impact Statement. EPA participated fully in the comprehensive permitting process, and the project has abided by every permit requirement.

Only Friday we saw more evidence of the decline of Central Appalachian coal, with the announcement by Alpha Natural Resources that it was closing its Justice No. 1 Mine in Boone County. Alpha officials said this about their reasons:

… In an effort to continue to adapt to the challenging conditions in the coal market, today we idled the Justice #1 mine near Madison. Demand and pricing for the type of coal mined at Justice is very weak.

A keen reader reminded me of a story we published before last year’s election about the many projections that pointed years ago to what’s happening now in the Southern West Virginia coalfields. Here’s the relevant part of it:

… A 1995 report by the U.S. Bureau of Mines cautioned that, based on current production levels and known reserves, Boone County “will be able to sustain mining activities for no more than 20 years.”

Given the larger factors at play, do coalfield communities in Appalachia really need another divisive campaign built around calling political and regulatory matters a “war”? Or would the people here be better off if elected officials, business lobbyists and other leaders tried to bring people together to build the future?