Competing views emerge over coal jobs bill
by Jack Latta
Washington, D.C. – Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul are looking to fast track permitting with new legislation introduced on Monday which would reduce government oversight of the coal industry, despite overall growth in Central Appalachia coal mining jobs.
U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell introduced the bill Tuesday, which targets the Environmental Protection Agency’s coal-mining permit approval process. McConnell says the EPA is negatively impacting coal-mining jobs in Kentucky.
Last week, McConnell announced his plans to introduce the Coal Jobs Protection Act during stops in Pikeville and Hazard. The measure is cosponsored by Paul and was also introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Shelly Capito (R-W.Va.).
According to officials with McConnell’s office, for each of the 14,000 people directly employed by the coal industry, three more Kentuckians hold jobs indirectly dependent on coal.
In 2012, total coal production in Kentucky declined by over 16 percent, while direct employment from coal fell by over 22 percent. McConnell said. He added that coal production in the region is down by nearly 28 percent, the lowest level, he says, since Lyndon Johnson was president.
McConnell says Eastern Kentucky has suffered the most.
“I think it’s clear what this administration’s true goal is,” McConnell said. “It’s not to see the coal industry actually comply with so many unreasonable regulations and red tape. It’s to see the coal industry driven out of business altogether. The EPA has turned the coal permitting process into an illegitimate, back-door means to shut down coal mines permanently by sitting on permits indefinitely and removing any certainty from the regulatory process.
“The Coal Jobs Protection Act, which I introduced today and cosponsored with my good friend, Sen. Rand Paul, will be our best weapon of defense to protect the thousands of jobs targeted by this administration and its war on coal.”
However, a report last month by Appalachian Voices says that despite a decline in production, there is actually more employment in the coal industry than there was 12 years ago. An increase in coal exports and harder-to-reach coal seams with more labor intensive deep mining, as opposed to surface mining, are cited as being largely responsible for the simultaneous decrease in production while increasing jobs. Matt Wasson, director of programs at Appalachian Voices, cited data from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, which found that the average number of coal mining jobs during the Obama Administration was 15.3 percent higher than in the Bush Administration.
“These numbers show pretty clearly that the purported ‘war on coal’ is an utter fabrication,” Wasson said in the report. “Even as this administration and the Environmental Protection Agency are making some important steps toward controlling coal pollution — from mining, burning, and burying the waste — the job numbers nationwide have been growing.”
According to federal data cited by Wasson, job growth in mining is particularly evident in Central Appalachia, where mine-related jobs have increased from 28,552 in 2000 to 33,029 in 2012, up 16 percent, despite coal production decreasing from 264 million short tons in 2000 to 147 million short tons, or 44 percent, during the same span.
On Tuesday, however, Wasson told Times staff that those numbers shouldn’t necessarily be applied to Eastern Kentucky, saying, “Eastern Kentucky is the worst situation in the country of any place I know.”
Kentucky is facing enormous problems, Wasson says, but adds that the problem is not due to EPA restrictions, calling such reports an “absolutely fictitious diagnosis of the problem.”
According to Wasson, the problem facing Kentucky is that 100 percent of coal produced in Kentucky is burned in U.S. power plants, mostly in the southeast.
“Natural gas prices in that part of the country are out-competing coal by a long shot, and likely to do so for the foreseeable future,” Wasson said. “(There is) nothing that the EPA or any other agency is doing that will meaningfully change that dynamic.”
McConnell continues to assert that the EPA and the Obama Administration are targeting coal-producing communities and are behind the disappearance of coal jobs.
The Coal Jobs Protection Act, if passed, will require the EPA to approve or veto 402 permit applications within 270 days of application. If the EPA doesn’t act by that time, the permit would be automatically approved. The CJPA would allow the EPA only 90 days after they receive a 404 permit application to begin the approval process for that application. It also gives the president a year to conduct an environmental assessment. Failure to act within that timeframe for approval of a 404 permit would mean the application is approved, the permit is issued, and the permit can never be subject to judicial review.
Wasson says he has not yet read the bill. “My understanding is that it is more or less precisely the same as last year’s bill, less about the content and more about being a false solution to the problem. It’s about politics. It’s about getting re-elected in 2016.”
The legislation has drawn support from the state, including the Kentucky Farm Bureau and the Kentucky Coal Association. KCA president Bill Bissett said his group strongly endorses the measure. “Sen. McConnell’s proposed legislation would address many of the issues that have unfairly plagued the Kentucky coal industry under EPA’s recent implementation of the Clean Water Act permit programs.
“Passage of the bill would compel EPA to exercise its authority consistent with the rights of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, its local governments and the private sector including the Kentucky coal industry.”
The CJPA bills, were filed Monday May 6 in the both the Senate (S.861) and House (H.R.1829). The House bill has been referred to the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, while in the Senate it has been referred to the Committee on Environment and Public Works.
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