Since the defeat his party suffered in last year’s elections, President Obama has tried to strike a new, more moderate tone. But more important than a change in tone is a change in policy — and one policy that needs changing badly is the war on America’s coal industry led by an overreaching Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Coal is an essential source of energy for America, and the source of more than half the country’s electricity. Coal is a vital part of Kentucky’s economy as well. More than 80,000 jobs in the state depend on it, including the jobs of approximately 18,000 coal miners. Throwing them out of work — while America still struggles with a weakened economy and high unemployment — is the last thing government should do. But that’s exactly what the EPA is doing.
Mines must receive permits from the EPA to operate. One such mine in southern West Virginia followed all the proper procedures and did just that, and got the green light from the EPA to proceed with operations in 2007. Now, three-and-a-half years later, in an unprecedented reversal, the EPA has retroactively “reinterpreted” its regulations, withdrawn the permit it issued, and shut down the mine, putting 90 miners out of work.
The EPA also announced that 79 permit applications still being considered would be subject to “enhanced environmental review,” effectively putting them in limbo along with the jobs and economic activity they could create. Some of those permits are for mines in Kentucky.
The EPA has turned the permitting process, which is already cumbersome to deal with, into a back-door means of shutting down coal mines. That is outside the scope of their authority and the law, and represents a fundamental departure from the permitting process as originally envisioned by Congress.
Changing the rules in the middle of the game like this is unfair and means no mining operation is safe, even ones that have been up and running for years. The thousands of Kentuckians who work in coal mining or have jobs that are dependent on it are in jeopardy.
Other industries besides coal are at risk too: I’ve heard from farmers, realtors, the transportation industry and others who also need permits from the EPA to continue their business. Now, they too could see those permits revoked.
I intend to keep a close watch over what the EPA does next, and I’ve already made one thing very clear to the agency’s administrator, Lisa Jackson: What happened in West Virginia must not happen here. Attacking an industry so important to Kentucky would put people out of work, hamper job growth, and increase energy prices.
Protecting our environmental resources is important. So is putting people back to work. The EPA is wrong in thinking that one must be sacrificed for the other. There is a way for the EPA to fulfill its mission of conservation while also protecting Kentucky jobs and allowing the mining industry to move forward. And if the president truly wants to heed the results of last fall’s election and move toward the center, Congress is happy to work with him to find it.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is the leader of the Republicans in the Senate.