Bill to kill Obama coal rule divides Tester, Daines – Billings Gazette, Feb. 4, 2017

February 7, 2017

Categories: Clean Water, Congress, News, Northern Plains Resource Council

By Tom Lutey

Protecting Montana’s clean water is a key value of Northern Plains Resource Council.

One of Barack Obama’s last executive orders concerning coal divided Montana’s U.S. senators as a bipartisan group of the lawmakers voted this week to kill the former president’s “stream protection rule.”

Four coal state Democrats joined Republicans in scrapping former President Obama’s rule, which Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., called “devastating to Montana’s coal jobs.”

“By eliminating it, we are opening the door for common-sense policies that protect our environment and good-paying Montana jobs,” Daines said.

The Senate vote Thursday was 54-45.

Montana’s Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, voted in favor of the Obama policy, issued last December, which he framed as promoting clean water. There was no mention of coal mining in a statement Tester issued after the early evening vote.

“Clean water gives life to Montana’s crops, livestock, fish, and ultimately our economy. Whether it’s farming and ranching or our booming tourism industry, our economy needs clean water to thrive,” Tester said. “As a farmer, I know darn well our crops won’t grow without clean water. And any Montanan will tell you: you don’t fish from polluted streams. Clean water is critically important to our Montana way of life, and we need to protect that for the next generation.”

Obama sought to change the way the Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement addressed the effects of surface coal mining on streams, fish and wildlife.

6,000 miles of stream

OSMRE estimated the rule would have improved reforestation of 2,486 acres of mined land per year, or 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forest over the next 21 years.

Mining companies and other stakeholders bristled at the executive order’s broad reach, which applied to drainages beyond the acres immediately surrounding a mine. They argued that existing federal and state laws protecting streams and spelling out reclamation requirements were sufficient. They argued that the rule was too one-size-fits-all and didn’t recognize the differences in rainfall and geology between mine sites in Appalachia and the flat, arid Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming.

“This rule wears the guise of an environmental regulation, when in reality it is a punitive measure designed to destroy an economic sector and, in doing so, reward environmental special interests at the expense of everyday Americans,” said Rick Curtsinger, of Cloud Peak Energy.

Cloud Peak mines coal in Montana and Wyoming. Like other coal proponents in the region, the mining company considered the “Stream Protection Rule” title a misnomer for an attempt to “keep coal in the ground,” the battle cry of coal opponents in the West.

“The facetiously named ‘Stream Protection Rule’ was in fact the de facto coal mining ban rule. Congress’ action to overturn this rule is an important step toward ending the Obama era’s regulatory onslaught against reliable, affordable energy critical to ensuring American energy independence,” Curtsinger said.

One of the more vocal opponents of the rule was the Crow Tribe of Southeast Montana. The Crow wrote Obama last November asking that tribal resources be left out of the rule because the Crow weren’t offered meaningful consultation, something the tribe argued it was entitled to under federal law.

Montana coal production was in a downward spiral the first 10 months of 2016 before turning upward in November as a cold winter set in. Cheap natural gas passed coal as the nation’s primary source for electricity generation in 2016. A supply glut in foreign markets made Montana coal hard to sell for profit.

Northern Plains takes a stand

Few Montana environmental groups voiced much interest in the stream protection rule, characterizing it as a rule targeting Appalachian hilltop removal mining. However, the rule published by the Department of the Interior mentioned surface mining repeatedly and mountain top removal sparingly.

Rancher Steve Charter recognized the Stream Protection Rule as applying to mining in the West. The former leader of the Northern Plains Resource Council also recognized the order as needed. Charter lives not far from Signal Peak Mine, which straddles the piney hills separating Yellowstone and Musselshell counties.

“Many of the costs of coal aren’t paid by coal companies,” Charter said. “They’re paid for by all the rest of us and this is just another example externalizing all those costs. What they’ve done is put all the reclamation costs of cleaning up the streams on our backs.”

In releasing the order last December, the Department of the Interior said mining companies would neither mine significantly less coal, nor face significant costs complying with the rule. DOI estimated that the United States would produce 700,000 fewer tons of coal over the next 20 years. Cost of compliance during those decades would be $81 million.

The National Mining Association said the rule would cost the coal industry 78,000 mining jobs and considerably more as jobs at railroads and power plants were folded into the mix. The estimates were based on analysis of 36 surface and underground mines.


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