Does Protecting Streams Equal Massive Coal Industry Unemployment?

Some folks in Congress are calling shenanigans on the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM) for “playing pretend” with potential coal industry job losses associated with the Stream Protection Rule. Critics contend the Obama administration wanted contractors writing the environmental impact statement to fudge the numbers on job losses, with audio recordings of the hilarity sparking a congressional inquiry.

Here’s some of the back and forth between unnamed OSM officials and the contractors, courtesy the Washington Free Beacon (Hat Tip Instapundit):

“It’s not the real world, this is rulemaking,” an OSM official tells a skeptical contractor on the recording.

“If we’re to assume [the 2008 rule] is enforced in the coal-producing states, this is a very small [impact],” the contractor replies. “But that, as you said, is not the real world, that’s pretending … I thought we were looking at what’s going to change in Kentucky, what’s going to change in Pennsylvania, what’s going to change in Ohio, what’s going to change in Wyoming.”

When a second OSM official makes light of the “theoretical discussion,” the contractor shoots back that “his [the OSM official’s proposed criteria] was theoretical, mine was practical.”

The agency fired the contractors studying the rule less than one month later.

As I’ve said before, nothing that happens in a bureaucracy should surprise you. The ineptitude, the malpractice, the incompetence; it’s all standard fare.

By the way, I have long supported streamside buffers, which is what this Stream Protection Rule is all about. A 100-feet no-mining buffer along streams makes intuitive sense. That’s why I was shocked though to read this bit that I plucked from the draft environmental study:

Alternative 2’s complete prohibition on mining activities in, near, or through streams within the 100-foot stream buffer zone is expected to sterilize surface mineable coal resources throughout the majority of the nation’s coal mining regions. Mining would be uneconomical in most coal producing areas where operators were unable to mine, place fill material, or conduct mining activities in or within 100 feet of any stream, including ephemeral streams. Based on the stream densities in each coal producing region in this study, it appears that very few surface mining operations could be located in areas large enough to operate a profitable mine, yet not come within 100 feet of any stream.

That’s what I get for assuming. I think there is a lot of law passed based on assumptions. Here is a case where maybe the assumptions by the OSM were shown to be wrong by the contractors, and now the bureaucrats are backtracking. On the other hand, maybe they aren’t backtracking at all, and rather are covering their tracks, knowing exactly what the impact of the Stream Protection Rule would be on coal industry employment in Appalachia.

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