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).