Normally, if people in this industry heard you say the nation’s capital, home of the Barack Obama administration, was the best thing coal had going for it over the next 12 months, you would be quarantined, or cut off from further refreshments and barred from driving home. But the fact is, the 114th Congress, sworn in last month, together with the Supreme Court, may just be the bright lights on the otherwise darkling plain that will be planet coal in 2015.
The reason is that Congress is now controlled in both Houses by Republicans who, together with moderate Democrats, can finally provide an effective counterweight to the administration’s all-but-coal energy policies and its ritualized obedience to the environmental agenda. Before we get carried away, some caveats here.
First, expect Congress to be a counterweight, not a savior. The president has made liberal use of his considerable Oval Office powers to take executive action in defiance of Congress, of election results and the fate of candidates from his own party. Exhibit A: His Clean Power Plan. This is the regulation used as a Trojan horse to push states into a cap and trade plan for CO2 that Congress has repeatedly rejected. While the White House has shown foreign enemies our backside, it has been relentlessly tough on its own people, from West Virginia to Wyoming.
And expect the administration to remain intransigent on major environmental issues. On the same day the Senate majority leader welcomed his new colleagues to town, the White House squelched any hope for legislative compromise on the big issues by announcing the president would veto Keystone pipeline legislation. So much for the focus on job creation to improve the worst labor participation rate in 30 years.
But we’ll content ourselves with a Congress that shares our emphasis on boosting energy supply, on fostering economic growth rather than stifling it with regulations, and on lowering energy costs instead of raising them in the naive hope that developing countries will raise theirs, too. More coal state allies chairing major Senate committees means more careful oversight of administration policies. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will finally have adult supervision, having to explain exactly how it consulted with grid regulators in developing its “costly power plan” when the regulators claim they weren’t consulted. The Office of Surface Mining will have to explain why we need a new stream buffer zone rule when streamside impacts from mining are already regulated. Congress may want to know why it’s necessary to suspend due process in the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s new Pattern of Violation policy.
There may be opportunities for coal in the appropriations bills due this spring. Riding along with these must-pass spending bills could be measures abolishing policies that pay off environmental supporters but offer little or no measurable benefit to the public.
Another reason Washington may be the good news story — or at least the “best news” story in 2015 — is the help it may get from the Supreme Court. The Supremes have agreed to hear the National Mining Association’s (NMA) challenge to the mercury and air toxics rule, responsible for the loss of 60 gigwatts of coal-based generation. The EPA, ever indifferent to the cost of its rules, ignored them in this one — the costliest rule ever until the EPA topped itself with its recently proposed ozone standard. NMA argues, and the Supremes appear to agree, that a rule delivering $4.6 million in benefits at a cost of $9.6 billion is not reasonable under the law. Not even the trophy wife of a Russian oligarch would spend $960 for something costing $0.04-0.06.
In another decision that surprised many, the high court has agreed to hear an industry