The Obama administration is cracking down on the coal industry, and mining in general, during August when the government typically takes a break from major policy action.
The Interior Department is advising states to begin holding coal companies accountable for the cost of cleaning up their vacated coal mines, while the mining industry and congressional Republicans are warning that the Environmental Protection Agency is gearing up to impose additional rules during the election season.
The Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement crackdown comes amid a global coal supply glut and other factors hurting the coal mining industry.
The Interior Department said making sure coal companies pay for the cleanup as their mines close will protect U.S. taxpayers from eventually having to foot the bill. The office said the new dominance of natural gas from fracking is forcing coal power plants to close and weakening coal demand, making for an opportune time to enforce federal mining rules.
"Lack of global demand for coal, competition from low cost shale gas and the unprecedented and continuing retirement of coal-fired power plants are clear signs that the energy industry is undergoing a major transformation and it is incumbent upon [the office of surface mining] to protect the public's interest," said the office's director, Joe Pizarchik.
The director issued a policy advisory Tuesday telling state mining agencies to enforce federal mining laws, which call on companies not to renege on their "legally mandated reclamation obligations."
The director said the agency will work with the states to ensure coal companies "do not forego their legal reclamation responsibilities."
Cleanup financing, known as "self-bonding," has come under tight scrutiny by the Obama administration after several large coal companies declared bankruptcy earlier this year. In many cases when coal businesses fail, the federal government is typically left to pay the cleanup cost as companies are no longer able to meet the bonding requirements.
The crackdown is considered unprecedented for the surface mining office. The office said no new self-bonding permits will be issued for five years, including to companies that have recently emerged from bankruptcy.
"Each regulatory authority should exercise its discretion and not accept new or additional self-bonds for any permit until coal production and consumption market conditions reach equilibrium, events which are not likely to occur until at least 2021," the advisory said.
The administration is also getting ready to impose new regulations for the hardrock mining industry that would mean higher costs for the entire mining industry, not just coal. The new rules would require more money for mine cleanups in western states and make mining ventures more expensive.
The National Mining Association raised the alarm bells Wednesday, warning that "a growing number of organizations – from state governments to surety underwriters — are expressing concern that EPA is about to impose economically harmful and unnecessary bonding requirements on mineral mining companies."
EPA's pending regulations are the result of a lawsuit brought by environmental groups in which the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the agency to propose the regulations by December.
The Republican chairmen of the House Energy and Commerce and Natural Resources committees sent a joint letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy on Tuesday asking that she provide them with detailed documentation on how the EPA plans to move forward.
The chairmen are concerned that the rules would be duplicative and apply unnecessary regulations on mining operations that already must comply with environmental cleanup rules from states and other federal agencies.
They want the EPA to provide the documentation by Aug. 22.