House Natural Resources Committee Subpoenas Interior Department over Radical Rewrite of Mining Law

by William Yeatman on April 9, 2012

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In a recent post, I explained how President Obama’s Interior Department has undertaken a radical reinterpretation of the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) that threatens to shut down coal production in Appalachia. In a nutshell, SMCRA authorizes coal surface mining, but now the Obama administration is poised to reinterpret the law such that it bans surface coal mining. (Read all about it, here). This is the latest salvo in the President’s war on coal; if implemented, it would effectively destroy the Appalachian coal industry.

Despite the enormous consequences at stake—an industry hangs in the balance—the Department of the Interior has deliberated largely in secret. Besides an Associated Press report on a leaked draft impact analysis, which suggested that the reinterpreted law would eliminate 7,000 jobs in Appalachia, information about the proposed rewrite has been scant.

For more than a year, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Washington) has been asking the Obama administration for information about the pending SMCRA rulemaking. And for more than a year, the Interior Department has refused to comply with Chairman Hasting’s requests. This is particularly galling given that the information sought by Hastings can hardly be deemed as controversial. Basically, he wants the Interior Department to produce the draft Environmental Impact Statement and Regulatory Impact Analysis. These are standard procedural documents common to almost all major regulations. More importantly, these analyses were financed by taxpayers. Why wouldn’t a Member of Congress have a right to see documents that were created with taxpayer money, and which pertain to a reinterpretation of a law passed by the Congress? Simply put, there is no legitimate reason for the Obama administration to resist, especially in light of its boasts of being the most open and transparent administration, ever.

Last week marked the end of Chairman Hasting’s patience with the administration’s stonewalling. On Thursday, he subpoenaed the Interior Department, seeking:

  • All recordings, and complete and unredacted transcripts of recordings, of meetings between the Department and contractors regarding the rewrite of the rule. This includes, but is not limited to, the known 43 digital audio recordings totaling approximately 30 hours.
  • Complete and unredacted versions of email communications previously provided to the Committee and documents reviewed by Committee staff in camera.
  • All documents related to the development of the Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and Notice of Intent to prepare a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the coal production regulation.
  • Complete drafts of the Environmental Impact Statement and the Regulatory Impact Analysis as of January 31, 2011 for the Administration’s rewrite of the coal production regulation.
  • Complete current drafts of the Environmental Impact Statement and the Regulatory Impact Analysis for the Administration’s rewrite of the coal production rule, as well as versions created since January 31, 2011.

Chairman Hastings gave the Interior Department until April 12, 2012 to comply. In a press release, his office indicated that this action was only the first step, and that “Additional categories of documents, not included in this subpoena but previously requested as far back as February of 2011, that are broader in scope and will likely produce a greater volume of responsive material are anticipated to be sought in the near future.”

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