The coal industry has been trending toward low ebb for several years now.  Depressed prices, slow growth in global consumption, significantly increased competition from natural gas and a hostile regulatory environment have combined to put West Virginia’s leading industry on its heels.

The country’s energy portfolio has shifted dramatically.  A report by SNL Energy, using data from the U.S. Energy Department, found that natural gas has overtaken coal as the leading source of energy for power generation for the first time (31 percent natural gas, 30 percent coal, 20 percent nuclear).

Coal companies are struggling.  The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Alpha Natural Resources is preparing a possible bankruptcy filing next month. Alpha has 33 active mines and 13 prep plants in West Virginia, employing nearly 5,000 people and paying $650 million in wages and benefits.

The Obama administration and the EPA have contributed to coal’s decline with a series of Draconian rules, including a proposal for carbon reduction that will make it impossible to build a coal-fired power plant in the future.

Things were bad enough, but now the administration has come down with a boot on coal’s throat by issuing an updated Stream Protection Rule for mining operations.  Sally Jewell, an environmental activist before President Obama appointed her as Interior Secretary, called the rules “a modern and balanced approach” produced following a robust public process.

We’ll give her points for a vivid imagination.

West Virginia and five other states withdrew from what was supposed to be a collaborative effort to develop these rules once they determined they were only convenient pawns. “We entered into this agreement in good faith, believing that OSM (Office of Surface Mining within the Interior Department) wanted to engage West Virginia and other coal-producing states as active partners in the development of the Stream Protection Rule,” said state DEP Secretary Randy Huffman last May.  “It is clear now that our faith in this relationship was misplaced.”

As for a “modern and balanced approach,” the regs run a whopping 1,238 pages, in many cases duplicating existing mining regulations. National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich said, “OSM would force operators to file an additional permit to cover the same water quality issues they now must address in a permit filed with the EPA. The water quality doesn’t improve with more paperwork and more permits.”

Meanwhile, the Interior Department is trying to downplay the economic impact on coal states like West Virginia.

Several years ago a draft of the report leaked, saying the updated stream buffer rule would result in the loss of 7,000 jobs. The outcry was intense, but the Interior Department patched that up by just using a different formula to come up with new numbers… and voila!

Now the agency claims, with no hint of irony, that the rules will preserve “economic opportunities.” Specifically, according to their consultant’s revised calculations, 460 jobs will be lost, but 250 jobs will be created in mine reclamation work.

If we get many more of these Washington “opportunities” we’ll have to turn out the lights.

 

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