Federal Chief: Coal Getting “Ass Kicked” by Natural Gas

July 24, 2013
Although coal production has increased in the last three decades, it has fallen since 2007

Although coal production has increased in the last three decades, it has fallen since 2007

WASHINGTON — The top federal official in charge of overseeing most of the nation’s coal mines impugned the industry for its woes in recent years.

“The coal industry is getting its ass kicked by cheap, clean natural gas,” Joe Pizarchik, director of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, said in an interview Tuesday.

Pizarchik noted that many coal-mine owners, especially in Appalachian states, have resisted adopting technology that would allow them to produce more.

Pizarchik’s agency oversees regulations of surface mines, which represent two thirds of all coal mines in the country.

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colorado Springs) did not dispute the gains the natural gas industry has made, but he blamed the Obama administration for imposing rules that hurt coal plants.

“There’s no question energy is a dynamic industry, but what I don’t agree is with the administration taking sides,” Lamborn said, noting that coal-fired plants will be required to conform to a federal rule limiting the emission of mercury, arsenic, and metals by 2015.

Four thousand to 5,000 jobs will be lost due to the shutdown of coal plants, according to the American Coalition for Clean Coal  Electricity.

Although coal production has increased in the last three decades, it has fallen since 2007, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Colorado is ranked as among the top twelve largest coal-producing states.

Pizarchik’s comments came after a bitter, recrimination-filled hearing of the House Natural Resources subcommittee Tuesday.

President Obama is traveling to Midwestern states to highlight his jobs and economic agenda this week. Republicans and a few Democrats from coal-rich states have said the administration is waging a “war on coal,” while Democrats said the administration favors clean coal.

At issue was the Obama administration’s decision not to implement fully a December 2008 rule governing waters next to coal plants.  A 1983 rule had barred mining companies from depositing their waste within 100 feet of rivers and streams. Under the Bush rule, mining operators were instructed to abide by the old rule, but to lessen the damage and compensate for the damage elsewhere if they could not.

While the 2008 rule applies to two states (Tennessee and Washington) and parts of Indian country in which the federal government is the primary regulator, it has not been implemented elsewhere.

The Obama administration’s decision has raised the ire of Republicans on the energy and mineral resources subcommittee that Lamborn chairs. The administration has turned over documents related to its decision, but House Republicans noted that some pages have been blackened out or redacted.

Several Republicans and two Democrats on the subcommittee gave starkly different accounts of the administration’s response to hand over documents to the committee.

“You should be ashamed of yourself, Mr. Pizarchik,” Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio, said) seeking to echo Army Defense counsel Joseph Welch’s famous denunciation of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1954. “You need to stop dodging and come clean with the American people.”

Pizarchik said his agency had handed over 14,000 pages of documents and 25 hours of audio recordings.

“Uh, congressman, uh, we respect the oversight function of the committee, and respect its relationship with the executive branch,” Pizarchik said.

Johnson disputed Pizarchik’s assertion about the audio recordings.

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) said redacting parts or all of some  emails was common for government agencies facing threats of litigation and seeking to protect attorney-client privilege.

“Despite the dire predictions  of the majority members on this committee, the Office of Surface Mining has not even issued a proposed rule, and when the administration actually does, this committee can have a reasoned debate. Until then, the majority is just making blind predictions,” Huffman said

Pizarchik said the agency expects to release a draft rule in 2014.

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