By Luke Popovich

“Without question, there is going to be a blistering, scalding indictment of the practices the industry engaged in,” thundered Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) in response to the headline-grabbing accident that dominated daily news coverage. No, not the Upper Big Branch mine accident; that was the subject of last week’s indictment. Markey was shaking his rhetorical fist at the oil industry for the BP spill.

That’s how fast the issues de jour can change in this town.  One week it’s “the crisis in health care,” the next it’s “the crisis on Wall Street.”  BP’s providential spill did manage to take mine safety off the front pages, but it did not remove mine safety from the congressional agenda.

The sometimes somber, sometimes frustrating hearing  on mine safety held last month by the Senate Labor Committee may carry lasting implications for coal operators. NMA’s witness, Senior Vice President for Regulatory Affairs Bruce Watzman, represented the industry well in what clearly were trying circumstances before a sometimes hostile committee. Watzman patiently expressed the industry’s view that in the wake of the Upper Big Branch mine tragedy and in advance of a full investigation into its cause, it would be unwise for Congress to conclude tougher laws and more regulations are needed when MSHA already has powerful enforcement tools it is not using.

Watzman also stated industry’s unequivocal responsibility to protect its workers and learn from tragic accidents to prevent their reoccurrence. “That is the responsibility American mining owes all who work in our mines, and it is the debt we owe those who perished at the Upper Big Branch mine,” he said. Watzman also provided evidence to the committee of how the evolution of our industry’s safety culture has led to successive years of record mine safety performance.

The action now is expected to move to the House, where Congressman George Miller (D-Calif.) is preparing hearings, and possibly legislation, patterned after his ill-starred bill to supplement the mine safety law that Congress passed in 2006 over his objection. The liberal chairman of the Education and Labor Committee sent a contentious letter to the NMA on April 30, asking mining companies “to take actions and responsibility immediately to ensure their operations are actively in compliance with all mine safety laws …” As UMWA President Cecil Roberts said before the Senate hearing, that is exactly what 95% of mine operators do.

The spasm of indignation soon settled over oil drilling. A “massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster” is how the president described BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Regardless of whether he’s right or wrong about the environmental consequences, his description may be equally apt for the spill’s political consequences.

Skeptics of off-shore drilling are exploiting the mishap to call for a moratorium on off-shore oil production, more subsidies for renewable energy and an end to fossil fuel dependence. In California, which often leads the nation blindly on environmental matters, Gov. Schwarzenegger immediately withdrew his endorsement for offshore drilling, followed days later by Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). Energy entrepreneur T. Boone Pickens responded predictably by urging Congress to approve more incentives for natural gas production. Investigative hearings in the House have already been scheduled for the foreshortened legislative calendar as some sense the tide has shifted in favor of environmental advocacy and government regulation.

One immediate consequence, however, may be to push climate change off the congressional agenda entirely. That’s because with off-shore oil revenue virtually off the table, oil patch Democrats will see little appeal in voting for the Senate’s climate change bill.  Those who desperately wanted this bill must now wonder how an environmental catastrophe that should have strengthened prospects of passage could actually have weakened them, probably fatally.

But irony is nothing new in Washington. Even now, any ban on deepwater oil drilling will probably lead to more, not fewer spills. That will mean more trans-ocean oil shipments, and more spills—since usually the biggest spills come from tankers, not offshore rigs. Whether such facts slow the gathering momentum against energy development remains to be seen.

Popovich is a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, the industry’s trade group based in Washington, D.C.