Second-Term Battle Lines Drawn in 'War on Coal'

WASHINGTON – Lawmakers from Kentucky, West Virginia, and other coal-producing states maintain the Obama administration is engaging in a war on coal because of the perceived environmental impact of coal-burning power plants, particularly as it pertains to global climate change.

The Obama administration, said Rep. Shelley Moore-Capito (R-W.Va.), “is seeking to turn us away from coal and keep the war on coal and drive up energy prices.’’

Coal, which for decades has served as the nation’s principal energy source, is losing ground, primarily as a result of its impact on the environment. Scientists hold that burning coal to produce electricity produces significant amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, contributing to global climate change.

In recent years, power companies have turned to natural gas, a cleaner fuel available in abundance. According to the Energy Information Administration, burning coal produced about 48.5 percent of the nation’s electricity in 2007. By 2012, that total had slipped to 37.4 percent.

That fact alone has placed the industry – and the states that rely on coal as an economic cornerstone – in a bind. Rather than provide a helping hand, coal state lawmakers claim, the Obama administration is rendering the situation infinitely more difficult in several ways.

In his State of the Union speech and in subsequent forums, Obama made it clear that the EPA intends to promulgate tough new regulations regarding carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions if Congress fails to act on its own. No new rules have been issued yet, but the agency appears to be on the verge of introducing restrictions on new coal-fired power plants that critics claim will be impossible to meet.

EPA also has hinted that it is contemplating tougher air restrictions on existing power plants – a move that critics fear will force several facilities to shut down.

At the same time, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, and others have accused the EPA of slow-walking the mining permit process to forestall production of an energy source that has failed to gain the administration’s favor.

McConnell has introduced legislation intended to force the EPA to act on mining permits within a specified period of time. Failure to do so would result in those permits being granted.

“This EPA has turned the coal permitting process into an illegitimate, back-door means to shut down coal mines permanently by sitting on permits indefinitely and removing any certainty from the regulatory process,’’ McConnell said. “By playing this game of ‘run out the clock,’ they have put many Kentucky mining operations into limbo and cost Kentucky thousands of jobs and over $123 million in coal severance money.”

The agency, McConnell said, is “changing the rules in the middle of the game. And they’ve done it all without a single vote in Congress. What EPA is doing is outside the scope of its authority, outside the scope of the law, and represents a fundamental departure from the permitting process as originally envisioned by Congress.’’

But by far the largest hurdle for the coal industry is dealing with greenhouse gas emissions and the EPA’s threat to crack down. Lisa Jackson, the agency’s former administrator, said the rules are needed to protect the public health and will “benefit the American people for years to come.’’

“There is no debate within the science community, based on the peer-reviewed literature, about the large changes occurring in the earth’s climate and the fact that these changes are occurring as a response to human activities, mainly burning fossil fuels,’’ said Dr. Donald Wuebbles, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Illinois.

The National Climatic Data Center maintains that 2011 and 2012 had some of the most extreme weather events -- including major droughts, heat waves, storms tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, and wildfires -- in the nation’s history, resulting in $60 billion in damages.