In the midst of severe economic uncertainty, the Environmental Protection Agency is playing political games with the livelihoods of tens of thousands of hardworking Americans as a result of its June pronouncement of so-called enhanced surface mining permit reviews. Tomorrow, the minority staff of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will release a report that details the dramatic realities of this incomprehensible scheme that amounts to nothing short of a total war on coal, energy production and small businesses in Appalachia and beyond.
[IMGCAP(1)]While the EPA conducts an unnecessary re-examination of the mining permitting process under the guise of environmental stewardship, the troubling reality is that the EPA’s unsolicited policy changes are aimed solely at the coal industry and more specifically, Appalachian coal. Unilaterally implementing some of the most sweeping regulatory changes in recent history, the EPA is supplanting well-established, Congressionally justified water quality programs in six Appalachian states and running roughshod over commonly agreed upon principles and practices.
The EPW Committee’s soon-to-be-released report reveals a troubling truth: In the past year, the EPA has indefinitely delayed hundreds of standard surface, underground and refuse mining permits. In some instances, the EPA has retroactively revoked federally approved permits without adequate justification and simply thrown these permits and the jobs that come with them into the bureaucratic abyss. Given that a mere 10 percent of these permits actually apply to mountaintop mining, these new bureaucratic hurdles represent a thinly veiled attempt by the EPA to regulate coal mining out of existence across Appalachia. This is shameful.
The Obama administration’s decision to blockade these 190 mining permits will make a grim unemployment picture much worse. In Kentucky and West Virginia, for example, where the unemployment rate continues to hover above 10 percent, coal mining directly accounts for 56,000 high-paying jobs. Throughout the Appalachian region, these mining jobs support families that might otherwise struggle to put food on the table. Even worse, the EPW Committee’s study states that unless the EPA frees up permits soon, 81 small businesses will face bankruptcy and a quarter of Appalachian coal mining jobs could be lost.
This is indeed a grim reality, but it would be naive to believe that only mining jobs are at stake. The transportation, equipment manufacturing and utility sectors are all inherently tied to the mining industry and will suffer disproportionately if the coal industry is dismantled. Jobs funded by taxes levied on coal will also be affected, including teachers, police officers and firefighters. While the EPA has set its sights specifically on Appalachian coal, the people of Appalachia will suffer regardless of whether they work in the coal industry.
In addition to threatening our region’s ballooning unemployment problem, the EPA’s action threatens our country’s energy and national security. Permits issued under the Clean Water Act provide the coal necessary to supply affordable electricity to nearly 80 million homes and over 95 percent of our domestic manufacturers. Preliminary data from the EPW Committee’s report indicate that by delaying these essential permits, we stand to lose more than 2 billion tons of domestically produced coal. Efforts to replace coal with wind, solar or other alternative energy sources are years away from being technologically feasible, which means the United States will have to look abroad to unfriendly foreign regimes to replace this two-year supply of low-cost, domestic coal. When energy prices inevitably skyrocket, every American who turns on a light switch will pay the price of the EPA’s singular focus on Appalachian coal. That may be great for EPA bureaucrats, but it’s bad for the millions of Americans who rely on coal to heat their homes and power their businesses.
We have always believed that mining operations in Appalachia should evenly weigh the interests of environmental protection, economic development and energy supply. In this time of economic strife, high unemployment and dangers abroad, America cannot afford an EPA that threatens to put an entire industry out of business. The government should not be in the business of picking winners and losers in any industry, and doing so in the energy sector is a recipe for disaster. Now is the time to put politics aside so that thousands of citizens in the Appalachian region can return to work.
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) is a co-founder of the Congressional Coal Caucus. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) has served on the Appropriations Committee for more than 25 years and is ranking member on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security.