The Obama administration added another layer of anti-coal mining regulations to the books Monday, just before President-elect Donald Trump takes office.
The new regulations require coal companies which have finished mining in an area to restore the land to the same condition that existed before digging began. Obama’s Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell called the new regulations “a balanced approach to meeting the nation’s energy needs.”
Companies are currently obligated to rehabilitate the areas they mine, but the new regulations are much more strict and largely focused on groundwater protection. The regulations replaced by the rule had been in force for 33 years — a rule under development since 2009.
The rule will almost certainly face opposition from Republicans, as it was enacted only a month before Trump takes office. This is exactly the sort of regulation Trump pledged during his campaign to reverse. Trump claimed during his campaign that he’d help turn around the coal industry, which is beset by debt, job losses, regulations and declining profits which make Obama’s new cleanup requirements much more difficult.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations and cheap natural gas are devastating coal companies as well, even forcing Peabody Energy, the world’s largest coal company, to declare bankruptcy earlier this year. Other American coal companies have faced financial problems too. Arch Coal filed for bankruptcy as well in January and coal companies like Alliance Coal announced mass layoffs.
A 2015 study found the coal industry lost 50,000 jobs from 2008 to 2012 during Obama’s first term. During Obama’s second term, the industry employment in coal mining has fallen by another 33,300 jobs, 10,900 of which occurred in the last year alone, according to federal data. Currently, coal mining employs 69,460 Americans, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Much of the blame for the job losses is targeted at federal regulations aimed at preventing global warming, which caused coal power plants to go bankrupt, resulting in a sharp decline in the price of coal.
“So if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can; it’s just that it will bankrupt them, because they’re going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted,” Obama said during a 2008 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton also pledged that, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”
Employment has fallen so drastically because coal production has fallen by 15 percent since 2008 as companies have been forced by environmental regulations to shut down 400 mines. Companies opened 103 new mines in the U.S. in 2013 while 271 coal mines were idled or shut down, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
As a result, many ex-coal miners are unemployed and Appalachian “coal country” faces very real economic devastation as a result. The coal-producing areas of eastern Kentucky have an unemployment rate of 8 percent and parts of West Virginia have double-digit unemployment.
The Obama administration responded by offering a mere $14.5 million in federal funding for programs to retrain out-of-work coal miners, after imposing regulations that greatly hampered the American coal industry.
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