Obama Administration Plans Second Front in War on Appalachian Coal Production

by William Yeatman on February 2, 2011

in Blog

Last week Tim Huber of the Associated Press broke news on yet another front being opened in Obama’s war on Appalachian surface coal mining (I blogged about the other front yesterday).

The AP story pertained to a controversial rule derivative of the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), known as the “100 feet buffer rule. As its name would suggest, it basically prohibits mining waste from being deposited within 100 feet of intermittent or perennial streams. According to the AP article, the Obama Administration’s preferred interpretation of this rule would cost 7,000 mining jobs, almost exclusively in Appalachia. And that’s the Department of the Interior’s own estimate, which is likely a lowball.

Background: The 100 feet buffer rule was largely ignored until the 1990s, when environmentalists initiated lawsuits alleging that valley fills constitute mine waste, and are therefore in violation of the buffer rule.

[Valley fills are a necessary byproduct of surface mining in the steep terrain of Appalachia. When you dig up coal, the loosened dirt and rock, known as overburden, have more volume than when they were compacted. Much of this overburden is used to reconstruct the approximate original contour of the mined terrain. However, there is almost always “extra” overburden, and this excess dirt and rock is placed in the valley at the base of the mine. This is known as a valley fill]

The problem with the environmentalists’ reasoning is that SMCRA clearly “contemplates that valley fills will be used in the disposal process,” to quote the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. So it doesn’t make sense that the law would both authorize and prohibit the same practice. President George W. Bush put the issue to rest in his second term. His Department of the Interior undertook a formal rule-making to exclude valley fills from the 100 feet buffer rule.

President Barack Obama, however, had campaigned on a promise to “bankrupt” the coal industry, and shortly after assuming office, he had the Department of the Interior try to reverse the Bush rule change, and thereby subject the Appalachian coal industry to an army of environmental lawyers. But a federal court slapped down this effort, because the Interior Department had tried to impose the rule change without a formal rulemaking. Thus rebuffed, the administration promised to revisit the issue within two years, and instead used a different tack to inhibit Appalachian coal production.

Which brings us to the AP story. Evidently, the Obama administration has been working on a new version of the 100 feet buffer rule, and their preferred choice is a doozy. According to the AP,

The office, a branch of the Interior Department, estimated that the protections would trim coal production to the point that an estimated 7,000 of the nation’s 80,600 coal mining jobs would be lost. Production would decrease or stay flat in 22 states, but climb 15 percent in North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana.

As Appalachia is the only region where valley fills are used frequently in coal mining, it stands to lose the most. Then again, that’s the point. This would be the second major business-crushing regulation tailor made for Appalachian coal country (to learn more about the first, click here and here).

Bill Pamorski February 2, 2011 at 11:30 am

Since i cannot comment on your website under the ethanol is insane article i figured i would leave you a comment here. Your ethanol thoughts are more opinion based then actual fact, since almost all of the ethanol we use in the country is produce in America are dependence on foreign oil will definitely decrease. Also the tariff is good because it keeps business in the US, no E85 doesnt get the same mileage as regular unleaded, but this is because the average American is to stupid or scared to drive a car tooled for straight ethanol. E85 vehicles are designed to run on both, but if you take a higher compression engine and run E85 or E100 you can produce the same mileage as regular unleaded gasoline. So before you point fingers at ethanol being a terrible fuel you should do some research on ethanol powered vehicles. Since ethanol is also 100% renewable it cuts are need for fossil fuels, which is 56.6% of the CO2 emissions nowadays, then we will be running a cleaner fuel with know NOx emissions, and if you dont understand what NOx is then ill clue you in, ground level ozone, the stuff that makes it so you cant see the sierra nevada mountains from California on some mornings. Corn alcohol is and always has been cheaper to produce then gasoline, and with newer processes being tested at MSU they are going to lower the cost by almost a $1.50 per gallon and use the process uses less water also. You cannot debunk these facts in anyway, I am studying with top professors in this area of alternative fuels, and you are the reason why the automotive world cannot take leaps forward because you publish junk science like this

Dave Hansen February 3, 2011 at 8:11 am

Bill P., you arrogant little snot-nosed twit. "…the average American is to (sic) stupid or scared to drive a car tooled for straight ethanol." Again, with the America-hating trash-talk, most likely just regurgitated from one of your elitist professors … go live in another country, and bash us from there, if we're so ugly. E85 is being pushed on us without our consent, to be used in millions and millions of vehicles that were never designed for it. Despite the fact that it's only marginally available, do you want EVERY auto in the US to be MANDATED to be 'tooled' to use it? And even the super-enviro-activist David Suzuki has stated that it takes nearly a full gallon of gasoline to make a full gallon of ethanol . . . where is the reduction of foreign oil dependence, especially until EVERY car in the US is converted over to use E85? Where does that put you, morally, Mr. Braintrust, that you advocate us burning up foodstocks that COULD be used to alleviate hunger around the world? Should we serve starving Ethiopians light sweet crude instead? As far as your 'studying with top professors', you might try and include English as one of those you should spend some more time with: "…a cleaner fuel with know NOx emissions…". Moron.

William Yeatman February 3, 2011 at 8:26 am

I'll take any comments I can get, even if they are arguments about an unrelated post.

Dave Kelly February 7, 2011 at 10:17 am


Great article. Concise, informative, and accurate. Have added this site to my daily read.


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