Republican committee chair grills Salazar on buffer zone policy

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., questioned Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at a Feb. 15 hearing on actions and policies that directly impact American jobs and the economy.

The committee said in a Feb. 15 statement issued after the hearing that it is investigating the department’s rewrite of coal regulations and the White House’s editing of a peer-reviewed report that recommended imposing a drilling moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s been over a year since these investigations began and the department continues to withhold an untold number of documents, the committee said.

At the hearing, Hastings specifically noted the department’s efforts to block the committee from obtaining 13 documents about an Office of Inspector General investigation into the White House’s edits of the drilling safety report.

“While I appreciate Secretary Salazar’s commitment to work with the Committee on our oversight efforts, I remain deeply concerned and frustrated over the Department’s inability to comply with our document requests,” said Hastings following the hearing. “In our January 25th letter, Chairman Lamborn and I very clearly stated our intent to move to compel production if the deadline were not met. We are very serious about this because thousands of American jobs are at stake.”

For the past year, the committee has conducted an investigation into the Obama Administration’s rewrite of coal regulations. The administration has failed to fully comply with repeated requests for documents from the committee looking into why this rewrite was initiated, whether the rewrite is being properly managed, whether political implications of the new regulations are unduly influencing the process and the economic impacts of the new regulations. These sweeping new rewrites could cost thousands of American jobs and decrease American energy production, the committee said.

A committee background report said that almost immediately after taking office, the Obama Administration began rewriting a recently completed coal regulation, the 2008 Stream Buffer Zone Rule. “This unnecessary action, carried out through the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM) at the Department of the Interior, proposed to dramatically alter a regulation that that took over five years of environmental analysis and careful scientific consideration to complete,” said the background report.

Despite the fact that a thorough environmental impact statement (EIS) was conducted for the 2008 rule, OSM hired another contractor to write an entirely new EIS for the Obama Administration’s efforts to rewrite the rule. A January 2011 Associated Press story said that this draft EIS concluded that the administration’s regulation could cost over 7,000 mining jobs and cause economic harm in 22 states. Shortly after this information was made public, the Obama administration criticized and dismissed the contractor it had selected to conduct this analysis, the committee report said.

In February 2011, Hastings and Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources Chairman Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., began an oversight investigation into the new coal regulations. Over the past year, a series of letters have been sent to OSM Director Joseph Pizarchik and to Salazar, seeking additional information and documents. However, the administration has yet to fully comply with document requests and continues to withhold the vast majority of requested materials.

On Jan. 25, the chairmen sent a final request for the administration to comply with the committee’s document requests and noticed the intention to move to compel the production of the documents if the final February deadline is not met. The committee noted that a subpoena is possible.

The stream buffer zone rule relates to the ability of coal producers to dump rock and dirt from their mine sites within protected 100-foot buffer zones around streams. The Bush Administration in 2008 wrote a fairly industry-friendly rule that the Obama Administration is now trying to replace.

CONSOL Energy (NYSE:CNX), a major coal producer, wrote about the rule and the impacts of possible changes in that rule in its Feb. 10 Form 10-K filing. CONSOL, by the way, is by no means the only coal producer affected by the rule.

“OSM is currently considering modifications to the existing stream buffer zone regulation, which amendments are referred to as the Stream Protection Rule,” said the Form 10-K. “An advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) was published in November 2009. Based on the ANPR, the proposed rule would apply to surface mining as well as underground mining activities that may impact streams. Although it is too early to predict what the impacts of the proposed amendments will be, all of the alternatives identified in the ANPR could result in loss of access to significant amounts of coal and/or significant increases in reclamation costs. In Pennsylvania, where CONSOL Energy operates two longwall mines, approximately $29.4 million, $21.8 million and $30.3 million of expenses were incurred during the years ended December 31, 2011, 2010 and 2009, respectively, to mitigate and repair impacts on streams from subsidence. With respect to subsidence impacts to streams, the regulatory requirement to minimize impacts to the hydrologic balance could cause CONSOL Energy to change mine plans, to incur significant costs, and potentially even shut down mines in order to meet compliance requirements. We currently estimate expenses related to subsidence of streams in Pennsylvania will be approximately $34.7 million for the year ended December 31, 2012.”

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.