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Pennsylvania coal industry crushed by needless regulation

| Wednesday, April 27, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

For decades, Pennsylvania has proudly mined the coal that fuels American industry. During World War II, coal helped fire the steel foundries and factories that built America into the “Arsenal of Democracy.” Today, coal still supplies roughly 35 percent of U.S. power generation — more than any other single power source.

Unfortunately, Pennsylvania's coal industry faces an all-out assault from Washington. The commonwealth is one of 17 coal-producing states formally protesting the Obama administration's Stream Protection Rule (SPR), the most recent of a fistful of regulations that could spell the end of the coal industry, with troubling consequences for the U.S. economy.

How did this battle for coal's existence come about so suddenly? Because the Obama administration — ignoring the welfare of coal states — has moved aggressively to ensure that coal will now be kept in the ground.

The SPR, a creature of the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining (OSM), is a massive, 2,100-page regulation that expands the agency's authority, conflicts with scores of existing laws and threatens to render the majority of America's coal reserves off-limits to further mining.

Despite its name, the SPR has little to do with protecting streams. That's because the agency's own reports already show virtually all U.S. mining operations carry no off-site environmental impacts.

Instead of protecting streams, the SPR aims to protect regulators. A skeptical Congress is asking why OSM needs more funding when poor market conditions have left it with fewer mines to regulate. OSM has responded by seeking to co-opt additional authority currently shared by the states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Along with being needless and duplicative, the SPR's language is so broad that a full reading could be used to essentially eliminate the safest and most-efficient techniques for coal mining, including longwall mining used in some of the largest coal-producing states. An independent analysis projects the loss of at least 40,000 coal-mining jobs nationwide, with total job losses throughout the U.S. coal supply chain potentially reaching 281,000 jobs.

The effect of keeping so much affordable energy in the ground would be staggering. The annual value of lost coal production could reach $29 billion, with federal and state tax revenue falling by as much as $6.4 billion annually.

Coal communities won't be the only losers, however. Displacing affordable coal power with higher-cost alternatives will mean higher energy prices for everyone, including those who can least afford it.

It's bad enough that the SPR is unnecessary and costly. But the Office of Surface Mining wants to impose these costs on states with which it failed to consult during six years of protracted rule-making. That explains why the agency was able to claim for itself responsibilities already carried out by states and other federal agencies.

The SPR is a rule in search of a purpose — a regulation that is more about politics than environmental protection. Pennsylvania is right to demand accountability from a federal agency that has clearly lost its way.

Hal Quinn is president of the National Mining Association.

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