The war against coal: another case of EPA overreach

Raymond Keating Chief Economist, Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council
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Coal matters. It matters to individuals, to small businesses, to our nation’s competitiveness, and to our overall economy. Nearly half of U.S. electricity is produced from coal, and the fuel cost of electricity produced from coal is cheaper than any other fossil fuel.

Coal is an abundant domestic supply of energy. The U.S. Energy Information Administration has reported: “The United States is home to the largest recoverable reserves of coal in the world. In fact, we have enough coal to last more than 200 years, based on current consumption levels.”

Coal truly is king. Yet, the Obama administration’s anti-coal bias is unmistakable.

Most troubling is the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) push to regulate CO2 emissions. That effort, if not stopped by Congress, will result in substantial increases in U.S. energy costs, particularly for coal, and wind up being a mighty blow to America’s competitiveness in the global economy.

But there’s also last week’s decision by the EPA to actually revoke a permit for a mountaintop coal mine in West Virginia. It’s one of the largest mountain-removal mines in Appalachia.

As for the top coal-producing states, while number one, by far, is Wyoming, coming in second is West Virginia. It is in West Virginia where the Obama EPA is moving against coal.

According to The Wall Street Journal: “The decision to revoke the permit for Arch Coal Inc.’s Spruce Mine No. 1 in West Virginia’s rural Logan County marks the first time the EPA has withdrawn a water permit for a mining project that had previously been issued. It’s also only the second time in the 39-year history of the federal Clean Water Act that the agency has canceled a water permit for a project of any kind after it was issued, according to the agency.”

According to various reports, the company was prepared to make a $250 million investment that would have generated 250 jobs.

It is not as if the mine was not thoroughly reviewed beforehand. U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, pointed out: “While it is not unusual for the EPA to object to a coal mine permit, this particular decision is shocking in that the EPA, for the first time in more than three decades, has ‘vetoed’ a coal mine permit that had been thoroughly reviewed by the EPA and other regulators, awarded by the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and put into action by the mining company. In fact, the permit was approved by the USACE after nearly 10 years of regulatory review that included the preparation of a multi-million dollar Environmental Impact Statement.”

Such an unprecedented move by the EPA obviously creates uncertainty for other projects. National Mining Association (NMA) president and CEO Hal Quinn observed: “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.”

He went on to explain: “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. EPA has taken this unprecedented action — never before contemplated in the nearly 40 years since the enactment of the Clean Water Act — at a time of great economic uncertainty.”

In a related issue, a federal district court judge on January 18 decided that a lawsuit against the EPA brought by the NMA could proceed. The judge noted that the EPA might have exceeded its legal authority when imposing new policies and requirements on mountaintop coal removal.

In a statement, the NMA’s Quinn declared: “In denying EPA’s request to dismiss the case, District Judge Reggie B. Walton strengthened NMA’s arguments that EPA’s policies are ’final agency actions’ subject to judicial review by finding NMA is likely to prevail in its assertion that EPA has violated the Administrative Procedures Act and the Clean Water Act. Further, the court agreed with NMA that the Clean Water Act envisions a much more limited role for EPA than has recently been pursued by the agency…”

Quinn also said, “We are encouraged by the court’s finding that NMA is likely to succeed in showing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has exceeded its authority under the Clean Water Act … These assorted actions have been used by EPA to impose a near-moratorium on coal mining permits in Appalachia and to justify the agency’s most recent unprecedented veto of the Spruce No. 1 Mine permit.”

The president this week ordered federal agencies to start reviewing regulations to see if they are overburdening businesses. Clearly, the EPA is guilty of this. Its move against coal — through both its effort to cap emissions and its unprecedented overreach against surface mining — not only promises to do serious damage to coal-producing businesses, but to consumers and businesses of all types and sizes that face increased energy costs as a result of misguided EPA actions.

Senator Manchin is proposing action. In a letter to Senate colleagues, he wrote: “In the coming weeks, I intend to pursue legislation to clarify, in no uncertain terms, that the EPA does not have authority under the Clean Water Act to reverse prior approvals of the USACE where a permit has been put through a rigorous regulatory process, including time for thorough review by the EPA for possible negative environmental consequences, and awarded by the USACE prior to any official objections from the EPA. In the meantime, I urge you, as a Member of Congress, to join with me in a bipartisan coalition to cosponsor sound legislation that restricts the EPA from putting jobs at risk by retroactively changing the rules on investments and business.”

In addition, various bills have been proposed in the House of Representatives to stop the EPA’s power grab regarding CO2 emissions.

Coal is a reliable, stable, domestically abundant, and affordable source of energy in the U.S., and the EPA’s misguided and destructive moves against this critical energy resource must be stopped.

Raymond J. Keating is chief economist for the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council (