Energy/Environment First Look

In nod to coal miners, Trump set to reverse Obama's stream protections

The mining industry is hailing the expected revocation of an Obama-era rule as confirmation that President Trump will make good on his campaign promise to 'bring the coal industry back 100 percent.'

Coal miners wave signs as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Charleston, W.Va., on May 5, 2016.
Steve Helber/AP/File | Caption

The Senate voted to repeal a federal rule restricting mining companies from dumping waste in nearby streams on Thursday, as part of a wider push by congressional Republicans to peel back Obama-era regulations they see as excessive.

The Stream Protection Rule, finalized in December, sought to protect some 6,000 miles of streams downstream from mining sites over the next two decades, according to an Interior Department release from that month. It established a strict buffer zone rule that blocked mining within 100 feet of streams – one for which the Bush administration often granted exemptions – and required permit-seeking companies to restore the ecology of mining sites after the fact. 

The mining industry celebrated the news of the repeal, which passed the House of Representatives on Wednesday and President Trump is expected to sign into law.

"This is one very, very important step to get coal back on its feet and stop the hemorrhaging of jobs that we've seen," National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich told Reuters.

The move resurfaces the conflict between those who see cleaner and more sustainable forms of energy as a priority for the public good and a new conservative populism that seeks to preserve a lifeblood industry for some states.

Democrats criticized the repeal as a win for polluters following the vote on Thursday, with Sen. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts characterizing the coal industry’s backing of the repeal as asking Republicans: "Please protect us from having to protect the public," according to Reuters.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) of Washington told the Associated Press the decline of coal had nothing to do with the stream rule, noting that it had not been in place during the past six years’ steep decline in production.

Indeed, the Trump administration faces an uphill battle in its promise to bring coal production roaring back, as The Christian Science Monitor’s Zack Colman reported in November:

Coal competes with natural gas in the electricity sector, and natural gas prices are projected to remain cheap for some time. The fuel has half the carbon content as coal, though environmental groups note that methane emissions that leak from hydraulic fracturing lessen natural gas’ overall climate appeal. But, to this point, the hydraulic fracturing boom that unleashed loads of natural gas has driven a good deal of US emissions reductions – the federal US Energy Information Administration (EIA) said that switching from coal to natural gas in the electricity sector last year accounted for most of the 12 percent drop in total energy-related emissions relative to 2005 levels.

Some policies Trump is advocating, like increasing drilling access on federal lands, might even expand natural gas production and further crimp coal.

But Obama-era regulations were widely viewed by market analysts as an additional pressure on the coal industry, one that all but sealed its decline. And Republican allies of the industry may see deregulation – including the repeal of an Obama moratorium on new coal leases for federal lands and the turning back of strict new emissions standards – as aligning the party’s establishment interests with its new Trump-era identity.

"The legislation we passed today will help stop this disastrous rule and bring relief to coal miners and their families," said Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, according to the Associated Press.

The moratorium, seen as a low-hanging fruit by the Obama administration, was deeply unpopular in coal country, as the Monitor’s Henry Gass reported in February, 2016:

The leasing program is the newest target for reform. The program has been criticized for years, allowing mining companies to access vast quantities of coal for pennies per ton, mostly in western states. The moratorium will last for three years while the Interior Department reviews the program.

The Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana, which has so far managed to endure the industry's ups and downs, may struggle during the moratorium. The region supplies about 40 percent of America's coal, and the sudden idling of the massive strip mines represents an alarming turn for communities that have relied on the industry not just for jobs, but for some of their core functions.

In the town of Gillette, Wyo., the industry has brought thousands of jobs as well as top-of-the-line schools and a $53 million recreation center. Even non-mining businesses around town are suffering.

"All these rules and regulations just make it harder to conduct business," Susan Doop, owner of a local alternative therapy business, told the Associated Press. "Everything [Mr. Obama] does to make it more costly to do business makes it harder. People are losing their jobs."

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.