No one's particularly pleased with the Obama administration's
early approach to regulating the U.S. coal industry.
The industry and big coal producing states are
worried about stricter reviews of Appalachian surface
mining permits by the Environmental Protection Agency
that have contributed to a lengthy backlog and efforts
to eliminate a pro-mining rule adopted by the Bush
administration. That's atop broader concerns about
efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired
power plants and talk of regulating carbon dioxide
- the chief greenhouse gas - as air pollution.
Even the EPA's recent announcement that it had
no objection to 42 surface mining permits has done
little to assuage mine operators - and certainly
not environmental groups.
If anything, the industry is more leery of the
new administration than ever, National Mining Association
spokesman Luke Popovich said.
Environmentalists, on the other hand, are unhappy
Obama hasn't issued an immediate ban on mountaintop
removal coal mining. Along with many Appalachian
residents, they've been fighting the particularly
destructive and disliked brand of surface mining
practiced across a broad swath of West Virginia,
Kentucky and Virginia.
As the name implies, mountaintop mining involves
blasting away ridgelines to expose multiple coal
seams and, in many cases, burying mountain streams
under tons of rock, dirt and other debris.
"Clearly they've signaled a new policy direction,
but they have not yet taken any actions that are
going to dramatically change what's happening on
the ground in Appalachia," said Mary Anne Hitt,
deputy director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal
campaign. "We would like to see mountaintop removal
Colorado State University political scientist Charles
Davis, who has studied the contrasting approaches
to surface mine regulation under the past two presidents,
says Obama's approach is not surprising.
"I think he's a middle-of-the-roader by instinct
on this," Davis said. "They do recognize that 50-plus
percent of all the power plants are powered by coal
and that coal has to be part of the solution despite
all the rhetoric."
Obama also enjoyed support from the United Mine
Workers, though the labor union largely stays out
of the mountaintop removal debate.
Coal producers, however, are getting ever more
wary, Popovich said.
"We are encouraged by what we see is continuing
support for clean coal technologies, particularly
carbon capture and storage, which underscores the
importance of coal for the nation and the importance
of technology to address global warming," he said.
"However, we remain very concerned about the actions
of regulatory agencies."
Chiefly, big coal is bothered by the EPA.
"Some mistakenly think the permits issue has been
resolved satisfactorily," Popovich said. "We would
point not to the permits that have been granted
but to the many, many more permits that are still
The EPA's decision to scrutinize surface mining
permits is a big concern looming over eastern U.S.
coal producers. One after another they were quizzed
about when they'll run out of surface mining permits
during conference calls with Wall Street analysts
after reporting first-quarter financial results.
That's a real fear for the industry - and a possible
trouble for electricity consumers. Appalachian surface
mines produce somewhere in the neighborhood of 10
percent of the nation's coal, but most of the region's
output goes to generating plants in the southeast.
If mines can't get permits, they can't operate and
the supply of coal goes down, forcing the price
Mountaintop removal mines need permits issued under
the Clean Water Act to fill valleys with debris
and those permits have been hard to come by. Just
a handful of permits had been issued for Appalachian
surface mines since a federal court decision in
2007. When that ruling was reversed on appeal earlier
this year, mine operators were hoping to get long-delayed
permits, but now they say the EPA announcement has
made it difficult again.
Consol Energy, for instance, recently warned 54
workers at a West Virginia surface mine that they'd
be laid off come July because the EPA is reviewing
a valley fill permit the mine needs to keep going.
Consol thought the permit was going to be granted,
but the EPA objected, leaving the company in limbo,
spokesman Tom Hoffman said. The mine was not among
those the EPA recently announced it would not challenge.
Concern about permits also contributed to Abingdon,
Va.-based Alpha Natural Resources' decision to bid
$1.4 billion for rival Foundation Coal. Officials
with both companies said Linthicum Heights, Md.-based
Foundation's surface mines in Wyoming, where regulatory
pressure is less, made the company more attractive.
Not having permits causes various headaches for
mine operators. Scott Depot-based International
Coal Group, for instance, has been trucking material
to distant valley fills at an eastern Kentucky mine
since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suspended
a Clean Water Act permit. That permit has since
"That will be a cost improvement," ICG Chief Executive
Ben Hatfield said to analysts last week. "As an
ongoing matter, I think the industry just has to
deal with the new reality that there are going to
be challenges to virtually every new permit that
Not everyone is displeased that the new administration
has merely done away with old rules and not created
new ones. Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition executive
director Janet Keating says it's just nice that
people who oppose mining have a voice after being
ignored under Bush.
"We're not being ignored," Keating said. "There
has to be, whether we like it or not, a careful
"We're not going to end coal today. We're not going
to end mountaintop removal today."