Scott Pruitt touts anti-environment agenda from a coal mine

Even the mine’s owners see natural gas as better bet.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt holds up a hardhat he was given during a visit to Consol Energy’s Harvey Mine in Sycamore, Pa., Thursday, April 13, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

In keeping with the Trump administration’s dubious insistence that less regulation is going to bring back coal jobs, the nation’s top environmental official visited the Harvey coal mine in southwestern Pennsylvania on Thursday to introduce the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) “back-to-basics” agenda that would weaken the agency’s climate action and enforcement efforts.

Since taking over as EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general, has consistently promoted a business-friendly mission for the EPA. During the visit, Pruitt told workers that the EPA, through its back-to-basics agenda, will work to remove environmental protections that inhibit job creation.

The Harvey mine, owned by Pennsylvania-based Consol Energy, is part of the Bailey Mine Complex. In 2016, Consol Energy was fined $3 million, as part of a settlement agreement with the EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice, for violating the Clean Water Act by discharging contaminated mine wastewater from the Bailey Mine Complex into tributaries of the Ohio River.

A group of coal miners listen to Pruitt on Thursday. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

As part of its new agenda, the EPA will review and, if appropriate, revise or rescind major rules issued by the Obama administration, including the Clean Power Plan.

The agenda also prioritizes the work of an EPA Regulatory Reform Task Force, a new panel charged with evaluating existing regulations and making recommendations to Pruitt on ones that can be repealed, replaced, or modified to make them less burdensome to industry.

Pruitt met with coal miners to stress the agency’s plans to remove “unnecessary burdens” on the coal industry. He informed the miners about the Energy Independence Executive Order signed by President Donald Trump on March 28 that rescinded several Obama administration executive orders and policies related to climate change.

The Sierra Club charged Pruitt with pushing an agenda that will allow companies to pollute without accountability or public health safeguards.

“We know that ‘back to basics’ is just code for sending the EPA back to the bad old days before the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act,” Randy Francisco, an organizer with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign in Pennsylvania, wrote in a blog post. “After all, he chose to launch his polluter-friendly agenda at this mine that was fined $3 million for Clean Water Act violations just last year, for dumping contaminated mine wastewater into tributaries of the Ohio River.”

During last year’s presidential campaign, Trump made bold claims that, if elected, his policies would revive the coal industry. Since taking office, he has signed executive orders revising Obama-era regulations on carbon emissions from power plants and coal mining on federal land. In February, Trump also signed a bill that rolls back the Office of Surface Mining’s Stream Protection Rule, a regulation to protect waterways from coal mining waste.

But even one of Trump’s biggest supporters, coal executive Robert Murray, doesn’t believe the president’s policies will bring back coal mining jobs anytime soon. For starters, the president’s efforts to boost the coal industry haven’t changed the minds of electric utility executives who are moving forward with plans to shut down large amounts of coal-fired generating capacity as part of a shift to natural gas and renewable energy. Consol Energy also made a splash earlier this decade when it decided to transform itself into primarily a natural gas production company after a storied history as a major coal producer.

Despite the ongoing shift to natural gas, Consol Energy still owns some major coal assets. In February, the company announced plans to lay off 200 workers at the Bailey complex, citing a Pennsylvania ruling restricting the company’s underground mining operations beneath a stream that flows through a state park. The Bailey mine, one of the state’s largest, has an annual production capacity of 11.5 million tons.

More than three years ago, as part of its move away from coal, Consol Energy sold five longwall mines to Murray Energy Corp., headed by Robert Murray, for $3.5 billion. Soon after the acquisition, Murray Energy announced it would discontinue medical coverage to about 1,200 Consol Energy retirees. The company blamed the “destruction of the coal industry” by the Obama administration for its inability to provide the benefits to the retirees.