With robust agenda, mining industry seeks help from allies in Congress

The National Mining Association outlined a robust agenda yesterday dealing with everything from greenhouse gas regulations to mine safety standards, hoping to rely on an army of backers in Congress to achieve its goals.

"We have a lot of support in Congress," Rich Nolan, NMA's government affairs senior vice president, said in a briefing with reporters.

For starters, NMA will continue its efforts in court and before Congress to rein in what CEO Hal Quinn calls "bad public policy" -- referring to U.S. EPA power plant emission controls. He expressed support for House Republican efforts to discuss changes to the Clean Air Act.

Quinn, echoing recent comments he made during a U.S. Energy Association event, told reporters that tough emissions and climate change rules for new and potentially existing power plants are stifling technological innovation (Greenwire, Jan. 17).

"It's a real impediment," Quinn said. "We are really holding off considerable improvements in power plant efficiency and existing units."


When it comes to mining coal, NMA said it expected boosters to once again introduce bills like the "Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act" (H.R. 2018). Called a dismantling of the Clean Water Act by environmentalists, the bill's aim was to empower states in permitting decisions and limit EPA intervention.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), one of NMA's allies on Capitol Hill, has already announced his intention to reintroduce the "EPA Fair Play Act," to prevent the agency from vetoing certain Clean Water Act strip mining permits after they are issued (Greenwire, Jan. 23).

"It's important to understand the environment that we're operating in," Nolan said, noting the difficulty of passing some of NMA's priorities in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Still, he noted his group's support for a significant number of new or re-elected lawmakers.

Quinn has said that the legislative arena is a powerful tool for debating regulations and pressuring the Obama administration into negotiating. Oversight, Nolan said, would continue to be a priority of the trade group.

Just yesterday, environmental groups announced that they were seeking to reopen federal litigation surrounding the George W. Bush administration's stream buffer zone rule. The groups want to use the courts to pressure the Office of Surface Mining to release its rewrite, called the "stream protection rule," which has been years in the making.

But NMA, calling the new rulemaking unnecessary, said it would once again be a target of congressional oversight. "We intend to pursue that again," Nolan said. "We'll continue to work with our allies in Congress to ask the right questions."

Just last week, House Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) mentioned OSM's stream rulemaking as a top target. While the panel lost coal hawk Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) to the Energy and Commerce Committee, it gained Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R), from the nation's top coal-producing state, Wyoming.

Some GOP leaders, including House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), have questioned the use of policy riders targeting environmental regulations in spending bills. Coal and mining issues have been among the most common.

But Nolan noted that Rogers has supported them in the past. He said pursuing policy riders "remains an option for the regulations that we are trying to address, and I don't see that tactic dissipating in the future."

Permit reviews, mining law reform

NMA expects similar legislative action, especially in the House, dealing with one of its top priorities -- expediting permit reviews for mining metals and minerals on public land. Permits for large mines, the group says, can take a decade to process.

"What we need here in the U.S. is more enabling policies," said the industry group's general counsel, Katie Sweeney, noting the United States' dependence on imports for minerals like rare-earth elements. "We need common sense and reasonable policies to guide access."

Sweeney said she expected legislation like Rep. Mark Amodei's (R-Nev.) H.R. 4402, which passed in the House during the previous session of Congress and would significantly streamline the permitting process, including litigation limits.

"This would put us more in line with the modernization that Canada and Australia have already done to their permitting process," she said.

Aaron Mintzes, a policy advocate for mining watchdog Earthworks, chafes when he hears industry groups talk about permitting delays. He thinks companies are trying to go around valid National Environmental Policy Act requirements.

"They're the reason why it takes so long," Mintzes said in a recent interview, citing complex mine plans. The Obama administration has said permitting is more efficient than it was during the previous administration.

But for the NMA, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's 20-year ban on new mining claims in about 1 million acres around Grand Canyon National Park is an example of the administration's lack of commitment to domestic resources, including uranium for nuclear power plants.

Arizona lawmakers may yet introduce legislation to scrap the administration's mining limits around the park. At the same time, NMA is proceeding with a lawsuit in Arizona U.S. District Court taking aim at not only the new Grand Canyon mining limits but also the constitutionality of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.

Sweeney said the group's litigation, in a move that has alarmed environmentalists, could "prevent future secretarial withdrawals over 5,000 acres." She said the industry is also hoping for a review of other existing mining limits.

Almost every time the mining industry talks about the need to promote domestic resource development, its critics bring up that hardrock mining companies don't pay royalties for resource extraction from public lands. A General Accountability Office report in November reignited the debate.

"I think there's a really good chance that we're going to be talking about it," said Earthworks policy director Lauren Pagel in an interview. While Senate deadlock on the issue and the GOP-controlled House may prevent significant action, she said, "it's a great time to talk about it."

Sweeney said Congress would focus on promoting rather than restricting development. "But there is potential that certain mining law issues could come up," she said. "There are at least some insinuations that people are talking about that."

Against safety law

NMA's regulatory affairs senior vice president, Bruce Watzman, expects the Mine Safety and Health Administration to continue its safety crackdown as the third anniversary of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, which killed 29 workers in West Virginia, approaches.

MSHA chief Joe Main has talked about increased compliance numbers. Watzman also touted declining death rates at American mines -- 36 last year, compared with 71 in 2010 and 67 in 2007.

But Watzman, upset about recent regulatory actions, said MSHA appears "more inclined to rush regulations without fully identifying the full cause of problems."

NMA touted its voluntary CORESafety program, which involves several components and suggested timelines for their completion. More than two-thirds of members have joined, affecting more than 100,000 workers.

Watzman said NMA would focus on promoting MSHA oversight to promote fair inspections and make sure the agency is doing all it can under the existing law. Too great a focus on cracking down on mines, he said, may distract regulators from other safety priorities.

House Republicans have largely followed NMA's lead. Democrats like Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) have announced their intention to reintroduce mine safety bills.

"We don't believe that more legislation is necessary. We think MSHA has the tools necessary to deal with operators," he said. "And where there are regulatory gaps, they are closing those gaps."

Watzman didn't say whether companies plan litigation against MSHA's latest effort to close what the agency feels are regulatory loopholes. The new pattern-of-violation rule makes it easier to put mines under increased scrutiny.

"We, like others, are taking a long, hard look at the rule," Watzman said, noting that it will have a "dramatic impact on the industry."

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