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Obama administration actions on coal

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This article is part of the Coal Issues portal on SourceWatch, a project of CoalSwarm and the Center for Media and Democracy. See here for help on adding material to CoalSwarm.

Contents

Appointments

Barack Obama's appointments of administrative heads and advisors was called a "green dream team" by some observers.[1] The appointees included:

On July 6, 2009, President Obama announced the appointments of former United Mine Workers union official Joe Main to head the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, and Joseph Pizarchik to run the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. Pizarchik currently heads the Pennsylvania Bureau of Mining and Reclamation. Some environmental groups criticized Pizarchik's appointment, describing him as a coal industry insider who has done little to protect the environment from mountaintop removal mining techniques.[2]

Obama administration and coal leasing on public lands

U.S. federal coal leases have fallen since 2008. Coal production totaled 1.17 billion short tons in 2008, but declined to 1.074 billion tons in 2009 and reached 1.084 billion in 2010. 2011 totals are expected to be roughly 1.08 billion tons in 2011.

The economic downturn is largely to blame for the decline decline. However, according to mining operators and analysts, federal policy has contributed to the decline. They point to the fact that the number of tons the government leased from 2008-2011 averaged 272 million. By contrast, the Bush administration leased an average of 515 million tons annually between 2002 and 2008. However, federal royalties are continuing to rise, reaching $701 million in fiscal 2011.[3]

Coal mining to expand on Wyoming and Montana public lands

On March 22, 2011 Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar stated that his office was opening up four tracts of land in Wyoming's section of the Powder River Basin for coal development. The leases are expected to bring in between $13.4 billion and $21.3 billion in leasing bids and royalties to the federal government and the state of Wyoming, stated Salazar. Wyoming will receive 48% of those revenues, with the rest going to the federal government.

The four tracts of land in northeast Wyoming are expected to yield about 758 million tons of coal.[4] A day after Salazar announced the deal to open public lands to mining operations, Marion Loomis, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, stated that Salazar's office had overestimated the amount of money the leases would bring in by "a factor of 10". The real amount of money the mines would likely produce will be closer to $2 billion.[5]

On April 20, 2011 the BLM it would sell leases for more than 61 million tons of coal in central Montana. The leases on 2,680 acres near the Signal Peak Mine, will be auctioned in a competitive sale the summer of 2011. The sale would open an additional 72 million tons of private and state coal reserves to potential mining operations.[6]

According to the report, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in 1990 “decertified” the Powder River Basin as a “coal production region,” allowing BLM to avoid following standard leasing procedures by limiting environmental review to the impact of individual leases, not the cumulative effect of all mining in the region. The designation also enables coal companies - rather than the federal government - to design lease boundaries, which can preclude competition. The report found that in the last 20 years, only three lease sales out of 21 had more than one bidder. The decertification also thwarts the BLM from doing a regional analysis of global warming impacts in the region from coal mining, and has blocked the agency from limiting coal leasing or otherwise adopting measures to address global warming.[7]

As of November 2009, the BLM was pushing to offer 12 new coal leases in the Powder River Basin that would collectively mine up to 5.8 billion tons of coal—as much coal as has been mined from the region in the last 20 years.[7]

The report recommends that BLM should refrain from issuing its 12 proposed coal leases, "recertify” the Powder River Basin a “coal production region” to restore competitiveness, prepare a regional environmental analysis that addresses the global warming impacts of coal mining in the Powder River Basin, and address the impacts of any new coal leases by requiring coal companies to pay a carbon fee for new leases that would be used to create a Global Warming Impact Fund.[7]

Public lands coal mining in Utah to expand

On October 10, 2011 Utah state's Division of Oil, Gas and Mining approved a preliminary permit for the Coal Hollow Mine, located on private land just 10 miles south of Bryce Canyon National Park. The mine would be the state's first strip coal mine. Alton Coal Development hopes to mine 2 million tons of coal per year for three years. The company must secure a $6 million reclamation bond before receiving final approval of its mining permit.[8] According to an internal memo obtained by the Associated Press, the permitting decision may have been fast-tracked by Governor Herbert after a meeting during which Alton complained that the process was taking too long.[9]

In November 2011, a coalition of environmental groups filed a petition to block the mine, arguing that the project would damage the region's air, water, wildlife and cultural resources. The groups include The Utah chapter of the Sierra Club, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Parks Conservation Association.[8] The Division of Oil, Gas and Mining is expected to begin hearings on the petition in December.[9]

BLM considers expanding Coal Hallow Mine

In November of 2011 it was announced that BLM reported it was considering a proposal to greatly expand the Coal Hallow Mine operation to more than 3,500 acres from a 635 acre mine. The the agency released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement laying out the proposal, which quickly drew reaction from environmental and conservation groups that formed an online petition opposing the project.[10][11]

Coal Ash

March 2009: EPA begins regulatory process on coal ash

On March 9, 2009, the EPA issued Information Request Letters to electric utilities that have surface impoundments containing coal ash. The letters are seen as the first step toward issuing regulations on the estimated 300 impoundments in the United States.[12]

In May 2009, an EPA representative announced at an energy industry conference that the agency is preparing regulations on how to handle ash from coal-fired power plants. Matt Hale, the EPA official, said coal ash may be reclassified as hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Although industry officials were vocal with objections, saying such a change would greatly increase disposal costs, Hale indicated that EPA hoped to have a proposal for national regulations by the end of the year. "The catastrophe at TVA changed the discussion and focused the discussion," he said.[13]

June 2009: Environmental groups demand release of list of 44 high risk coal waste sites

Sierra Club, Earthjustice, the Environmental Integrity Project, and the NRDC filed a Freedom of Information Act request to gain access to a list of 44 coal ash disposal sites that EPA has classified as "high hazard." EPA has thus far refused to disclose which of the hundreds of coal ash sites across the country pose the biggest threat to neighboring communities. The agency was told by the US Department of Homeland Security not to release the information, citing unspecified national security concerns. The locations of other hazardous sites, such as nuclear power plants, are publicly available.[14]

June 2009: EPA releases list of 44 "high hazard" coal ash dumps

In response to demands from environmentalists as well as Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California), chair of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, EPA made public its list of 44 "high hazard potential" coal waste dumps. The rating applies to sites at which a dam failure would most likely cause loss of human life, but does not include an assessment of the likelihood of such an event. The list includes sites in 10 states, including 12 in North Carolina, 9 in Arizona, 6 in Kentucky, 6 in Ohio, and 4 in West Virginia. Eleven of the sites belong to American Electric Power, 10 to Duke Energy. No Tennessee Valley Authority sites were included on the list. EPA relied on self-reporting by utilities to rank the facilities, and TVA classied all of its dump sites - including Kingston Fossil Plant - as "low hazard."[15]

TVA reclassifies sites as "high hazard"

Two weeks after the release of EPA's list, Tennessee Valley Authority reclassified four of its coal disposal sites to “high.” The four sites include Colbert and Widows Creek Fossil Plants in Alabama and Bull Run Fossil Plant and Cumberland Steam Plant in Tennessee. TVA reclassified most of its other dumps as "significant" hazards, meaning that a dam failure would likely cause economic loss and environmental damage. TVA had initially ranked all its sites as having "low" hazard potential.[16]

EPA's List of 44 High Hazard Potential Units

The following table comes from EPA's official list of Coal Combustion Residue (CCR) Surface Impoundments with High Hazard Potential Ratings. This list is organized alphabetically by company.[17]

Company Facility Name Unit Name Location
Allegheny Energy Pleasants Power Station McElroy's Run Embankment Willow Island, WV
American Electric Power Big Sandy Plant Fly Ash Louisa, KY
American Electric Power Cardinal Plant Fly Ash Reservoir 2 Brilliant, OH
American Electric Power Gavin Plant Fly Ash Pond Cheshire, OH
American Electric Power Gavin Plant Bottom Ash Pond Cheshire, OH
American Electric Power Amos Plant Fly Ash Pond St. Albans, WV
American Electric Power Mitchell Plant Fly Ash Pond Moundsville, WV
American Electric Power Muskingum River Plant Unit 5 Bottom Ash Pond (Lower Fly Ash Pond) Waterford, OH
American Electric Power Muskingum River Plant Upper Fly Ash Pond Waterford, OH
American Electric Power Muskingum River Plant Middle Fly Ash Pond Waterford, OH
American Electric Power Philip Sporn Power Plant Fly Ash Pond New Haven, WV
American Electric Power Tanners Creek Plant Fly Ash Pond Lawrenceburg, IN
Arizona Electric Power Cooperative Apache Generating Station Ash Pond 4 Cochise, AZ
Arizona Electric Power Cooperative Apache Generating Station Ash Pond 1 Cochise, AZ
Arizona Electric Power Cooperative Apache Generating Station Ash Pond 3 Cochise, AZ
Arizona Electric Power Cooperative Apache Generating Station Scrubber Pond 2 Cochise, AZ
Arizona Electric Power Cooperative Apache Generating Station Scrubber Pond 1 Cochise, AZ
Arizona Electric Power Cooperative Apache Generating Station Evaporation 1 Cochise, AZ
Arizona Electric Power Cooperative Apache Generating Station Ash Pond 2 Cochise, AZ
Arizona Public Service Company Cholla Generating Station Bottom Ash Pond Joseph City, AZ
Arizona Public Service Company Cholla Generating Station Fly Ash Pond Joseph City, AZ
Duke Energy G.G. Allen Steam Plant Active Ash Pond Belmont, NC
Duke Energy Belews Creek Steam Station Active Ash Pond Walnut Cove, NC
Duke Energy Buck Steam Station New Primary Pond Spencer, NC
Duke Energy Buck Steam Station Secondary Pond Spencer, NC
Duke Energy Buck Steam Station Primary Pond Spencer, NC
Duke Energy Dan River Steam Station Secondary Pond Eden, NC
Duke Energy Dan River Steam Station Primary Pond Eden, NC
Duke Energy Marshall Steam Station Active Ash Pond Terrell, NC
Duke Energy Riverbend Steam Station Secondary Pond Mount Holly, NC
Duke Energy Riverbend Steam Station Primary Pond Mount Holly, NC
Dynegy Midwest Generation Havana Power Station East Ash Pond Havana, IL
Dynegy Midwest Generation Wood River Station East Ash Pond (2 cells) Alton, IL
FirstEnergy Bruce Mansfield Power Station Little Blue Run Dam Shippingport, PA
Southern Company-owned Georgia Power Branch Generating Plant E Milledgeville, GA
E.ON-owned Kentucky Utilities Company E.W. Brown Generating Station Auxiliary Pond Harrodsburg, KY
E.ON-owned Kentucky Utilities Company E.W. Brown Generating Station Ash Pond Harrodsburg, KY
E.ON-owned Kentucky Utilities Company Ghent Generating Station Gypsum Stacking Facility Ghent, KY
E.ON-owned Kentucky Utilities Company Ghent Generating Station Ash Pond Basin 1 Ghent, KY
E.ON-owned Kentucky Utilities Company Ghent Generating Station Ash Pond Basin 2 Ghent, KY
E.ON-owned Louisville Gas & Electric Co Cane Run Station Ash Pond Louisville, KY
PPL Montana LLC Colstrip Steam Plant Units 1 & 2 Stage Evaporation Ponds (STEP) Colstrip, MT
Progress Energy Carolinas Inc Asheville Plant 1982 Pond Arden, NC
Progress Energy Carolinas Inc Asheville Plant 1964 Pond Arden, NC

December 2009: EPA delays regulations on coal ash

On December 17, 2009, EPA announced it was postponing its findings on coal ash regulations. A final decision had been expected before the end of the year. EPA attributed the delay to "the complexity of the analysis the agency is currently finishing," but said the delay would only last "a short period."[18]

EPA Proposes Competing Approaches To Regulate Coal-Ash Waste

On May 4, 2010 the U.S. EPA announced two competing proposals to regulate coal-ash waste produced by coal-fired power plants. The proposals would not declare coal ash a hazardous waste as desired by environmental groups and the waste material could continue to be reused in various ways, EPA officials said. The final decision on which proposal the EPA and choose is to happen in July 2010.[19]

The EPA decided not to choose a single option amid pressure from industry and environmental groups. The federal agency said both proposals for the first time would place "national rules on the disposal and management of the waste material from coal-fired power plants." Yet the EPA's plan leaves open the question of whether to phase out wet storage impoundments in favor of landfills, with the dueling proposals differing on the issue, according to an EPA press briefing.[20]

House Committee votes to bar regulation as hazardous waste

A House committee approved legislation on July 13, 2011 that would bar federal regulation of coal ash as hazardous waste. The bill, passed 35-12 by the Energy and Commerce Committee, now moves to the House floor, where a Republican majority is expected to pass it. Six Democrats joined the committee’s Republicans in voting for the bill. While barring the EPA from regulating coal ash, the legislation would allow states to treat the ash as municipal waste, placing it in the same category as household garbage and cleaning chemicals, wastewater and construction debris. It was reported that landfills and ponds holding coal ash generally would be subject to the same rules for design, lining and groundwater testing as landfills containing municipal garbage.[21]

Groups sue EPA over coal ash rules

In April 2012, a coalition of environmental groups filed a lawsuit to force the Obama administration to finalize rules to regulate the containment and disposal of fly ash. Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, the Environmental Integrity Project, and several other groups want the EPA to finalize coal ash standards the agency proposed previously.[22]

Power Plants

Jan. 2009: EPA overturns approval of air permit for Big Stone II

On January 23, 2009, three days after the Obama administration took office, the EPA overturned the approval of Big Stone II. The decision comes after the state of North Dakota failed to require state-of-the-art pollution controls for the coal plant to address concerns about soot, smog and global warming pollution. The reversal may be the end of the coal plant. If the plant is to proceed, Otter Tail Power will have to redesign the project to incorporate the best and maximum available control technology for pollution such as soot and smog. Sierra Club and Clean Water Action are also pushing for the EPA to set limits for carbon dioxide emissions.[23]

Jan. - April 2009: EPA decides to reconsider Desert Rock air permit

On January 8, 2009, the U.S. EPA Region 9 filed notice with the EPA's Environmental Appeals Board (EAB) to partially withdraw the PSD/construction permit for the Desert Rock plant because of the EAB's recent ruling in the Bonanza plant appeal in Utah. The agency will re-issue the permit for pubic notice and comment at a later date. Also on January 8, the EPA responded to the Sierra Club's petition to review before the Board. As legal challenges to the plant continue to mount, the price has grown from an estimated $1.5 billion to $4 billion.[24]

On April 27, 2009, the EPA Region 9 asked the Environmental Appeals Board (EAB) to remand the Desert Rock PSD permit back to the agency for reconsideration, citing numerous issues with the permit.[25][26] If the EPA request is granted, the timeline for the project will be significantly pushed out as the permit will be subject to both agency analysis and another round of public comments. In addition, the project was dealt another setback in March when the BLM and BIA rescinded the permit for the 472-mile Navajo Transmission Project - the power line necessary to transport electricity from Desert Rock to the Southwest.[27]

Regulation of Greenhouse Gases

April 2009: EPA declares greenhouse gases a threat to public health and welfare

On April 18, 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency declared carbon dixodide and five other heat-trapping gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride) to be pollutants that threaten public health and welfare. The declaration set into motion a process of regulating carbon dioxide and other gases emitted by coal-fired power plants and synfuels plants.[28][29][30]

December 2009: EPA finalizes endangerment finding

On December 7, 2009, EPA finalized its endangerment finding that greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide are a threat to human health and welfare. The announcement was the final step in the April 2007 Supreme Court ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA, which found that under the Clean Air Act, the EPA must regulate greenhouse gas emissions if they endanger public health and welfare. The EPA's decision paves the way for new regulation of emissions from power plants, factories, and automobiles. Announced on the first day of international climate talks at COP15 in Copenhagen, the move gives President Obama new regulatory powers that could help gain consensus in efforts to curb global warming. Both Obama and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson have said they prefer climate change legislation as a means of regulating global warming pollution, but the finding provides an alternative means of establishing emissions limits if the legislation fails.[31][32]

May 14, 2010: EPA proposes emissions rule aimed at large polluters

On May 14, 2010 the EPA stated that it was completing a rule that would required large polluters, such as coal-fired power plants, to reduce the amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that they emit into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels. The new rule, which is to take effect in January 2011, would require companies to install enhanced technology and improve energy efficiency whenever they build or significantly modify their plant.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson stated that the rule applies only to large polluters such as "power plants, refineries and cement production plants that collectively are responsible for 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources in the U.S."[33]

October 2010: Companies fight potential EPA disclosure proposal

Oil producers and refiners, along with manufacturers of steel and others opposed a proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency that would make the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that they release — and the underlying data businesses used to calculate the amounts — available online to the general public.

While gross estimations exist for such emissions from transportation and electricity production as well as manufacturing, the EPA for the first time will be requiring companies to submit information for each individual facility. The companies claimed that disclosing details about total emissions would reveal company secrets by letting competitors know what happened inside their facilities.[34]

December 2010: EPA sets timeline to clean up coal pollution

On December 23, 2010 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced its timeline for developing nationwide limits on global warming pollution from power plants, the largest single source of global warming pollution. EPA won’t propose any actual standards until July 2011, but the Agency said final standards would be issued by May 2012.

The EPA regulation addresses existing sources, using the statutes of the Clean Air Act's New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) to impose limits in 2012 on the amount of CO2 the biggest polluters can emit. The EPA said it would cover 40 percent of U.S. emissions.[35].

The EPA has also been developing a permitting program for new (or substantially upgraded) sources. In May 2010, the EPA issued its "Tailoring Rule," determining which sources will need to get permits (very large sources). In November 2010, it issued "PSD and Title V Permitting Guidance for Greenhouse Gases," which detailed that the permitting program would be run much like existing permitting programs: through the states.[36]

The regulations will be applied to plants that were "grandfathered" (exempted) under the original Clean Air Act.[36]

February 2011: Lisa Jackson defends global warming plan in Congress

On February 9, 2011, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson made a trip to Capitol Hill to speak before the Energy and Power Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Lisa Jackson came under fire from House Republicans who charged that the EPA's proposed emissions rules would mean "higher prices and fewer jobs."

Lisa Jackson stated that a bill drafted by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., to prevent the EPA from using the act to curb greenhouse gases, was "part of a broader effort in this Congress to delay, weaken, or eliminate Clean Air Act protections of the American public." It was the first time Jackson had visited Congress since the Republicans took control.

"Coal is the energy source America possesses in the greatest abundance," Whitfield, chair of the Energy and Power Subcommittee stated in his opening remarks."It provides half the nation’s electricity, and 92 percent in my home state of Kentucky," Whitfield stated of coal. "And it does so because it is affordable."[37]

Republicans and some Democrats countered that regulations like those sought by the EPA would penalize industries that otherwise could be creating new jobs, and they've made the agency a central target of thei anti-regulatory agenda.

"There has been an onslaught of job-crushing regulations emerging from the EPA over the last few years," said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., at a recent hearing of the Senate Environment Committee.

Having failed in 2010 to enact legislation to reduce greenhouse gases, the Obama administration was reported as trying use the existing Clean Air Act to achieve its goals in tackling the issue of climate change.[37]

March 2011: New EPA Standards for Mercury and Air Toxics Proposed

On March 16, 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its proposed emissions standards to limit mercury, acid gases and other toxic pollution from power plants, to prevent an estimated 91 percent of the mercury in coal from being released to the air. The EPA estimates that there are approximately 1,350 units affected by the action, including 1,200 existing coal-fired units.[38]

There are currently no existing national limits on the amount of mercury and other toxic air pollution released from power plant smokestacks. The 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments mandated EPA control toxic air pollutants, and the EPA took action to reduce mercury emissions from the highest-emitting sources, except power plants, as the Clean Air Mercury Rule passed under President George W. Bush was vacated by a court.[38]

The proposed toxics rule would reduce emissions of heavy metals, including mercury (Hg), arsenic, chromium, and nickel, and acid gases, including hydrogen chloride (HCl) and hydrogen fluoride (HF). EPA is also proposing to revise the New Source Review performance standards (NSPS) for fossil-fuel-fired plants. This NSPS would revise the standards new coal- and oil-fired power plants must meet for particulate matter (PM), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and nitrogen oxides (NOx). The EPA estimates the rules will prevent thousands of premature deaths and tens of thousands of eart attacks, bronchitis cases and asthma attacks, at a health value total of $59 billion to $140 billion in 2016.[38]

Requirements of the new standards include:[38]

  • For all existing and new coal- and oil-fired electric utility steam generating units (EGUs), the proposed standards would establish numerical emission limits for mercury, PM, and HCl.
  • For all existing and new oil-fired EGUs, the proposed toxics rule would establish numerical emission limits for total metals, HCl, and HF.
  • Actions available to power plants to meet the emission limits include wet and dry scrubbers, dry sorbent injection systems, activated carbon injection systems, and baghouses.
  • The proposed standards would establish work practices, instead of numerical emission limits, to limit emissions of organic air toxics, including dioxin/furan, from existing and new coal- and oil-fired power plants.
  • The proposed revisions to the NSPS would include revised numerical EGU emission limits for PM, SO2, and NOX.

June 2011: EPA Delays Rule on Power Plant Emissions

On June 13, 2011 the EPA said that it was delaying by two months the release of a proposed rule on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other major pollution sources. The agency was facing intense opposition from Congressional Republicans and industry over a broad range of new air quality regulations.

The delay of the rule, which will have a major impact on the nation’s efforts to reduce emissions of gases such as CO2, was the latest step by the EPA to slow the issuing of regulations that critics claimed would hurt economic growth, drive up energy costs and cut employment.[39]

March 2012: EPA to reduce new power plants' carbon pollution

In March 2012 the Obama administration put forward a proposal to limit heat-trapping pollution from new power plants. Some environmental groups stated that while significant, the proposal did not go far enough in regulating greenhouse gas emissions from the coal industry. It was reported that the new rule could either derail or jump-start plans for 15 new coal-fired power plants in 10 states, depending on when they start construction. Those that break ground in 2012 would be exempt from the new limit. Existing power plants, even if they make changes that increase emissions, would not be covered at all.[40] The rule calls for a limit 1,000 lb of CO2 per MWh.[41]

Regulation of mercury emissions

In October 2009, EPA announced it will set standards to require oil- and coal-fired power plants to reduce air pollution. The move settles a lawsuit filed by environmental groups to push EPA to issue limits on mercury emission. Although the Clean Air Act required EPA to issue its rules by 2002, the Bush administration had deemed such regulations unnecessary. Now the Obama EPA has agreed to set pollution standards by March 2011 on mercury and other harmful emissions from power plants. Many power plants will be required to install expensive scrubber equipment to capture heavy metals and particulates. Currently only about a third of power plants use scrubbers. Environmentalists estimate that the new rules could save 35,000 lives per year by 2025. Jim Pew, an attorney at Earthjustice, hailed the agreement as "the Holy Grail of pollution control."[42]

Regulation of sulfur dioxide emissions

In November 2009, the EPA proposed new limits on sulfur dioxide, the first time since 1971 that the agency has recommended tightening controls on SO2 to protect public health. The old limits measured sulfur dioxide averages over 24-hour and one-year periods. The new rule would require one-hour measurements, such that a spike of emissions above a new limit — between 50 and 100 parts per billion in one hour — would no longer be acceptable. The EPA estimates that if the rule is enacted with the strongest limits the agency is recommending, the benefits by 2020 would include 4,700 to 12,000 fewer premature deaths per year and 3.6 million fewer cases of worsened asthma. The agency also calculated that the health benefits of the new regulations would greatly outweigh the $1.8 billion to $6.8 billion costs of the new rules. A public hearing is scheduled in Atlanta in January 2010, with the new rules scheduled to become final by June 2010.[43]

Mountaintop Removal

March 2009: Obama EPA begins to crack down on mountaintop removal

On March 23, 2009, the Obama administration began making moves to block or stall mountaintop removal mining permits. The EPA issued letters meant to halt or slow two mining permits proposed by the federal Army Corps of Engineers in West Virginia and Kentucky. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson made an official announcement on March 24, saying, "The two letters reflect EPA's considerable concern regarding the environmental impacts these projects would have on fragile habitats and streams. I have directed the agency to review other mining permits requests. EPA will use the best science and follow the letter of the law in ensuring we are protecting our environment."[44]

The decision to delay and review the two permits calls into question more than 100 pending valley fill permits in the Appalachian region.[45] In response to widespread industry dissent warning EPA not to block mining permits, as well as praise from environmentalists for the decision to deny permits, the organization issued the following clarification of its intentions:[46]

The Environmental Protection Agency is not halting, holding or placing a moratorium on any of the mining permit applications. Plain and simple. EPA has issued comments on two pending permit applications to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expressing serious concerns about the need to reduce the potential harmful impacts on water quality. EPA will take a close look at other permits that have been held back because of the 4th Circuit litigation. We fully anticipate that the bulk of these pending permit applications will not raise environmental concerns. In cases where a permit does raise environmental concerns, we will work expeditiously with the Army Corps of Engineers to determine how these concerns can be addressed. EPA’s submission of comments to the Corps on draft permits is a well-established procedure under the Clean Water Act to assure that environmental considerations are addressed in the permitting process.

April 2009: EPA challenges three MTR permits

In April 2009, EPA issued objections to three more mountaintop removal mining permits pending issue from the Army Corps of Engineers. The specific mines are Massey Energy's Republic No. 1 Surface Mine in Kanawha County, West Virginia; Frasure Creek Mining’s Spring Fork No. 2 Mine in Mingo County, West Virginia; and A&G Coal Corp.’s Ison Rock Ridge Surface Mine in Wise County, Virginia. According to the EPA letters, the three mining operations would bury about eight miles of streams.[47]

May 2009: Army Corps of Engineers suspends MTR permit for A&G Coal

On May 7, 2009, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suspended its approval of A&G Coal Corp.’s Ison Rock Ridge Surface Mine in Wise County, Virginia. The decision follows on the heels of a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club and Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards to block the permit. The Corps stated that the suspension provides officials "an opportunity to fully evaluate concerns" raised by EPA in April 2009.[48]

June 2009: Obama administration announces plans to toughen standards for MTR permits

On June 11, 2009, the Obama administration announced plans to toughen standards for mountaintop removal mining, rather than banning the practice entirely. Officials from EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Interior Department, and the White House Council on Environmental Quality said they would order a more rigorous environmental and legal review of pending and future permit applications for MTR projects. The announcement did not clarify whether the new standards would result in more or fewer mining permits being approved, leaving both environmental and coal industry groups uncertain about whether to support the new policies.[49]

September 2009: Obama administration seeks to block West Virginia MTR permit

On September 3, 2009, the EPA issued a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers calling out problems with a permit issued for a strip-mining project in Logan County, West Virginia, the largest such permit ever issued in the state. EPA found that the mine would violate the Clean Water Act, having the "potential to degrade downstream water quality, and to cause or contribute to potential excursions of West Virginia’s narrative water quality standards." EPA has asked the Corps of Engineers to suspend, revoke, or modify the permit. In response, the Corps is seeking a 30-day stay in legal proceedings over the permit, so that its experts can re-examine the project.[50] The full EPA letter is available here.

September 2009: EPA holds 79 MTR permits for review

The EPA identified 79 mountaintop removal permits issued by the Army Corps of Engineers in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia that it said would likely affect water quality. The agency put the permits on hold to allow for further study to ensure the projects will not violate the Clean Water Act. Mary Anne Hitt of the Sierra Club described the move as "a sea change in enforcement" over the Bush administration, during which the EPA did not oppose a single permit.[51][52]

October 2009: EPA to revoke permit for West Virginia surface mine

On October 16, 2009, the EPA announced that it planned to use its authority to revoke the permit for Mingo Logan Coal's Spruce No. 1 mine, which is owned by Arch Coal. The agency said it was acting on its authority for the first time since the Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972. The project at issue would be the largest authorized mountaintop removal operation in Appalachia. In a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, EPA Regional Administrator William Early said the action "reflects the magnitude and scale of anticipated direct, indirect, and cumulative adverse environmental impacts associated with this mountaintop removal mining operation."[53]

September 27, 2010: More than 100 arrested in front of White House for coal protest

At a protest in front of the White House in opposition to mountaintop removal, over 100 people were arrested. In all, it was stated that 2,000 people took part in protests around the city. Hundreds of people marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to Lafayette Park, which faces the White House, according to protesters and media accounts. The march included at least one stop, at U.S. EPA headquarters, protesters said. It was reported that James Hansen, who heads the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, was among those arrested.

The crowd of mostly youthful ralliers carried signs like "Blowing Up Mountains for Coal Poisons People" and "Mountain ecosystems won't grow back." Some carried small white crosses adorned with messages such as "water pollution" and "corporate greed."[54][55]

October 2010: Coal lobbyists wooed White House staff to influence coal ash regulations

A report released by DeSmogBlog and PolluterWatch released in late October 2010 stated that coal industry lobbyists held 33 secretive meetings with the White House to peddle their influence over proposed coal ash regulation. The report noted that this was over three times more meetings than the administration held with environmental groups on the same issue.[56]

The report noted that the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group (USWAG) was one of the main front groups that represented the coal industry on coal ash regulation. USWAG, the report stated, operated out of the Edison Electric Institute and has argued that disposing of coal ash as hazardous waste could cost the industry $20 billion annually. USWAG lobbyists Jim Rower and Douglas Green were the only individuals granted two meetings with the White House on coal ash regulations. In addition, the American Coal Ash Association (ACAA), an umbrella group for all coal ash interests, including major coal burners Duke Energy, Southern Company and American Electric Power and dozens of other organizations, also argued that a hazardous designation would wipe out the so-called "beneficial-use industry" that used coal ash to produce construction and household products.

ACAA set up a front group during this period called Citizens for Recycling First to argue on the industry's behalf that using toxic coal ash as fill in products was safe. A review of lobbying disclosure records reveals at least 30 lobbyists representing ACAA member companies who reported lobbying White House, Congressional and agency staff on coal ash issues in the first half of 2010.[57]

January 2011: Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement document states that new rules could cost 7,000 coal jobs

In January 2011 it was reported that the Obama administration's own experts estimated their proposal for protecting streams from coal mining would eliminate thousands of jobs and slash production across much of the country. The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement document stated the agency's preferred rules would impose standards for water quality and restrictions on mining methods that would affect the quality or quantity of streams near coal mine operations. The rules are supposed to replace Bush-era regulations that set up buffer zones around streams and were aimed chiefly at mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia.

The proposal, which was part of a draft environmental impact statement, would affect coal mines from Louisiana to Alaska.[58]

Synfuels

Jan. 2009: Air Force cancels Malmstrom Project

On January 20, 2009, the Air Force Times reported that the Air Force had reached a decision on the Malmstrom plant and would announce it on January 16. [59]

On January 29, 2009, Air Force officials announced that they had rejected construction proposals and would no longer be pursuing development of the large synthetic fuel plant.[60]

Oct. 2009: Air Force abandons plans to develop CTL plants

On October 21, 2009, the Air Force announced it had cancelled plans to build coal-to-liquids fuel plants as a means of producing alternative jet fuels. Under the Bush administration, the Air Force - which makes up 10 percent of U.S. jet fuel demand - had been pushing to drive the development of a domestic CTL market. The decision to abandon these plans represents a policy shift under the Obama administration and raises doubts about the viability of developing a CTL industry in the U.S.[61]

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

April 2009: FERC chairman says further coal plants not needed

On April 22, 2009, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman Jon Wellinghoff told reporters at the U.S. Energy Association forum that no new coal or nuclear plants might be needed in the United States. "We may not need any, ever," Wellington said, adding, "I think baseload capacity is going to become an anachronism. Baseload capacity really used to only mean in an economic dispatch, which you dispatch first, what would be the cheapest thing to do. Well, ultimately wind's going to be the cheapest thing to do, so you'll dispatch that first."[62]

Abandoned Mine Land program

May 2009: Obama Administration proposes cutting Abandoned Mine payments

The Administration has asked Congress to cut $142 million in Abandoned Mine Lands payments to certain states over the next year and $1.5 billion over the next 10 years. The cuts are included in the $17 billion that Obama is seeking to eliminate from programs identified as wasteful or obsolete. The AML program taxes coal production to fund the cleanup of abandoned coal mines that cannot be attributed to a particular producer. Along with coal reclamation, states have used the funds for other projects, including research on coal gasification and to support the University of Wyoming's School of Energy Resources. The cuts would affect "certified" states in the AML program, or those that have either completed or made plans to complete their remaining coal reclamation work. These include Louisiana, Montana, Texas, and Wyoming, as well as the Navajo, Hopi, and Crow American Indian tribes.[63]

Obama plans merger of lands, coal mining agencies

It was announced that the Obama Administration was proposing to merge Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM) into its larger Bureau of Land Management. Energy Secretary Ken Salazar said merging the OSM, which oversees coal mining regulation, into the larger lands agency will allow for more effective management. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said it was Obama's effort to hurt the coal industry.[64]

Resources

References

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  4. "Coal mining to expand on public lands in Wyoming" Jim Spellman, CNN.com, March 22, 2011.
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  6. "61M tons of coal near Roundup to be leased by BLM" Associated Press, April 20, 2011.
  7. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named jn
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