While it looks like plans for the carbon tax and energy legislation will be tabled for this Congress, the Obama administration continues to dictate by fiat through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and the Office of Surface Mining (OSM). The scale of assault on the coal industry is unprecedented. The seemingly endless rule changes and proposed regulations is frightening. For at least the next two years it will be survival of the fittest. The coal companies with the safest mines, permitted reserves and the deepest pockets (best lawyers), will ultimately prevail.

The actions the EPA has taken (or has not taken) in regard to mine permitting have been well documented in Coal Age. West Virginia, under the leadership of Sen.-Elect/Gov. Joe Manchin—one of the more vocal Democrats opposing the Obama administration, is suing the EPA. There is, however, another side to the permitting coin that also influences the coal business: utility permits for new sources or expanding existing sources. EPA policy is affecting long-term decisions on fuel choices in utility boardrooms. The uncertainty created by rulemakings may force a mass retirement in an aging fleet of coal-fired power plants.

Mine safety managers literally need an iPhone app to keep up with what MSHA has announced in the last month. The press releases issued by the agency would have completely filled this edition of Coal Age alone. MSHA issued an injunction against a coal operator (a first). It is rewriting the rules on potential Pattern of Violations, dust control, respirable dust, etc. MSHA has initiated what it calls “impact” inspections and will announce the mines it deems unsafe publicly. As this edition went to press, it placed 13 mines on potential POV status.

In the last year, OSM has increased the number of its oversight inspections of coal-mining operations to evaluate how each state is administering regulatory programs. The bureau has developed new standard operating procedures for permits. It has implemented several new stream protection measures. During November, it released three new internal draft oversight directives.

Congress needs to gain control of these agencies. In light of the recent tragedies, the need for MSHA oversight is debatable, but many safety professionals believe MSHA should enforce the laws that already exist. Time will tell if stepped-up enforcement improves mine safety. According to a recent article in the Wall St. Journal, 56 senators in next year’s Congress are on record supporting bills that would freeze EPA carbon regulation and strip the agency of its self-delegated powers. The new Congress should not hesitate. For the U.S. to remain competitive, we need vast sources of low cost energy. Once the engineers can begin retooling the energy infrastructure in a sensible manner, the jobs will follow.