Interior Official to Trump: Go See Devastation in Coal Country

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By Stephen Lee

Nov. 28 — President-elect Donald Trump should go witness first-hand the effects of coal mining in Appalachia before embarking on his plans to ramp up coal production and scrub environmental regulations, a high-ranking Interior Department official told Bloomberg BNA.

“He’s got another couple of months before he is sworn in. I would ask him to go to coal country to see the abandoned mine lands,” said Joseph Pizarchik, director of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

“He doesn’t have to go far. Just go from New York City to northeastern Pennsylvania, around Hazleton and places like that. He can see thousands of acres of dangerous mines, polluted mine water, destroyed lands, destroyed communities, communities that were abandoned by companies after they destroyed the land and water.”

Trump has said that lifting regulations on the coal sector will bring back jobs and revive struggling communities.

Demand Problems

But to Pizarchik and others, the real problem isn’t regulations—it’s that coal is no longer the cheapest energy option.

Competition from natural gas has helped put some 60 gigawatts of coal-fired power plants out of service permanently over the last five years.

“I can appreciate [Trump’s] desire to want to help people,” he said. “But if you mine more coal, you have to have a market for it. Just mining it is not going to create jobs in the long run.”

Even Robert Murray, chief executive of Murray Energy Corp. and one of the industry’s most ardent cheerleaders, said after the election that he doesn’t foresee an increase in coal demand.

But Christian Palich, president of the Ohio Coal Association, said those who question coal’s future “might be the same people who predicted [Trump] wouldn’t have a path to 270" votes in the electoral college. Coal can still be the nation’s most affordable and plentiful energy source, Palich said.

“With a president that supports coal, I think you definitely could see a rally,” Palich told Bloomberg BNA. “Create the right atmosphere and the market will do what the market does. Once you have a president not picking winners and losers, I think coal is going to be in a very good position to thrive.”

Stream Rule on Life Support

Pizarchik also said he still intends to issue OMSRE’s long-awaited stream protection rule (RIN:1029-AC63), which would limit generation of coal-mining waste and its placement in streams.

Earlier this month, OSMRE issued its final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the rule, sending a clear signal that the standard is close to being released in its final form.

If the rule is issued before Trump takes office, most observers expect Congress to invoke the little-used Congressional Review Act, which allows an up-or-down vote on any significant rulemaking within 60 days of its finalization.

Pizarchik, however, wasn’t so sure.

“I don’t think we should assume that they’re going to try to kill it, because when you look at the final rule, we’ve made adjustments to that,” he said. “There’s adjustments to the final EIS to take into consideration the dynamic nature of the energy world in which we’re in.

“There’s a transformation occurring, and the final rule will create more than twice as many jobs as will be impacted,” Pizarchik said. “And coal miners need jobs. They need clean water. And they don’t need another Flint, Michigan.”

Coal companies and Congressional Republicans have derided the rule, saying it would destroy the industry by placing overly burdensome demands on it.

Self-Bonding Rule Update

OSMRE is also in the very early stages of a rule that would close loopholes in the way mining companies finance their future cleanup obligations (RIN:1029-AC73).

A notice of proposed rulemaking is expected next month, according to the Obama administration’s most recent regulatory agenda.

“I hope that the next administration will go forward with changes of the rules so that they function the way Congress and folks envisioned when they were first promulgated,” Pizarchik said.

OSMRE Chief: Fix Bankruptcy Law

Pizarchik also called for changes to the federal Bankruptcy Code to protect workers when coal companies fail, as many have recently.

“The people who made these companies profitable, the coal miners, they shouldn’t be the ones who lose their pensions and lose their health care,” Pizarchik said. “But that’s happened in every single one of these [bankruptcies]. Those people who have houses on the French Riviera, they shouldn’t be able to keep them while the guy who was running the bulldozer loses his health care, loses his job and loses his benefits.”

One of Pizarchik’s recommended fixes would prevent corporate executives from receiving bonuses when their workers are owed benefits.

Pilot Program Report

He also said OSMRE plans to release a report after Thanksgiving detailing the proposals made by officials in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia under a pilot program that delivered $30 million to each of those states for land reclamation projects that are designed to create jobs.

“We’re not going to know definitively, but I believe the program is demonstrating that it is successful, that the idea President Obama had back in 2014, when he asked us to do more to help coal country, is a viable program that will work,” Pizarchik said. “It will create jobs reclaiming the land and will create future jobs for the long term.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington, D.C. at stephenlee@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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