By Luke Popovich

One day in early March official Washington shut down entirely. And not because the $85 billion sequester that threatens air traffic controllers and the White House Easter egg hunt sent federal workers home without pay. No, instead Washing-ton shut down because it was cold and rainy. Anticipating a terrible storm that was supposed to paralyze the city, the government was closed for business. The storm turned out to be a bust, the streets were clear. But federal offices were empty and the malls were full.

If coal mines shut down every time it rained we could cut carbon emissions a bit and cut our Gross Domestic Product in half, too.

There have been times in the past few years when it appeared as though official Washington was hell bent on shutting down coal mines. The Environmental Protection Agency was slapping a moratorium on surface mines and proposing power plant controls that virtually preclude construction of new coal-based capacity. The Office of Surface Mining proposed a new rule to severely restrict mining activity in valley bottoms. When your government evangelizes on behalf of green energy, and takes its cue from those The Wall Street Journal calls “the Walden Pond” crowd, you can’t expect coal to always get a fair shake.

So what can we expect looking ahead now that the White House is assembling a new team to manage these agencies? At press time, the president had made his choice for new heads of the EPA, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Energy. Gina McCarthy is to succeed Lisa Jackson as EPA administrator, Sally Jewell will succeed Ken Salazar as Interior secretary and physicist Ernest Moniz will follow Steven Chu at Energy.

The National Mining Association was cautious in apprising these nominees in advance of their Senate confirmation hearings, where we hope to learn more about their views on OSM’s Stream Protection Rule, EPA’s greenhouse gas rules for power plants, carbon taxes and other issues important to coal.  

As EPA air quality administrator, McCarthy was a chief architect of the very power plants rules we opposed. The president said “there is nobody who can do a better job in filling Lisa’s shoes.” Small wonder the Walden Pond crowd cheered her nomination; leopards don’t change their spots. But many observers also noted that in her dealings with industry—as former Gov. Mitt Romney’s chief environmental officer in Massachusetts and more recently at the EPA—McCarthy has been open to discussion, well informed and less ideologically driven than her controversial predecessor. Saying she would likely be an improvement is therefore hardly an endorsement. But President Reagan’s famous approach to the Soviets—“trust but verify”—seems to apply here.

At Interior, nominee Jewell will presumably bring business acumen from her successful stints as a former oil executive and CEO of outdoor gear maker REI. During her confirmation hearing, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) wondered how she ever got appointed by this administration with her resume. Here’s the answer: she also brings to the job a history of collaboration with environmental groups unfriendly to mining. After all, REI makes outerwear for weekend hikers, not workaday miners. She’s very attuned to the consumers of things, not the makers of things. So we were interested to hear her disavow interest in a carbon tax on fossil energy and pledge to preserve multiple uses on federal lands that are under assault by environmental groups loyal to her administration. She didn’t say much about OSM’s proposal for regulating mining around streams that the agency’s own contractors said could devastate coal mining in Appalachia.

The president’s nomination of Moniz as Energy secretary got some greens riled up. He committed the sin of reaffirming his belief that coal is important in America’s energy portfolio and thinks advanced coal technologies can continue the coal age even as carbon emissions are controlled. As a former MIT physicist he understands that Btus and electrons aren’t created at wishing wells, and as a former department undersecretary and White House aide he knows the ways of Washington, too. Maybe enough to even move energy policy back to the Energy Department.

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