The White House proposed new federal regulations on Thursday that will minimize the environmental impact of coal mines on the nearby streams. The new regulations have been anticipated for some time, and Republicans immediately criticized the new policy as “punishing already hurting coal miners”, although some believe that the new regulations are not expected to result in significant job losses.

The most recent federal regulations to protect streams were promulgated in 1983, and even many critics of environmental laws agree the old regulations need updating. The rules proposed by the Obama administration would create a buffer zone to ban coal mining within 100 feet of streams so as to prevent coal mining-related debris from ending up in the water.

Moreover, the new rules — developed by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement — go further in setting specific guidelines for coal miners to follow when exceptions to the 100-foot buffer are granted (often grandfathering situations).

The Department of Interior described the new rules as ensuring that mountains are restored to mountains once mining is over.

Coal Mines – More on new environmental regulations

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the new regulations represented a balanced approach to energy development that fully safeguards the environment. She pointed to an analysis that suggests only around 200 jobs would be lost if/when the new regulations are implemented. Government officials also noted that the new rules would impact electricity costs by only about one-tenth of 1%.

The White House made it clear quite a while ago that it was drawing up new regulations designed to incorporate changes in science and mining practices over the last three decades. Coal industry analysts point out biggest impact will be felt in states such as eastern states such as West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

Thom Kay, a legislative associate for Appalachian Voices, commented that his group planned to continue to work to ensure the strongest possible protections once the regulations are made official. “When finalized, this rule will largely define President Obama’s legacy on the ongoing tragedy of mountaintop removal coal mining,” Kay said.

Opponents argue coal mines need “protection” too

Coal supporters and a number of GOP lawmakers in Washington immediately attacked the proposed regulations as putting coal mines out of business, and  promised to fight.

“Clearly, the Obama administration will stop at nothing to stomp out American livelihoods dependent on coal,” explained Rep. Rob Bishop, Republican chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources.

We reported earlier on the bankruptcy filing of coal miner Walter Energy, as coal has come under increasing pressure.

Coal mines

The Interior Department has said that the new regs will force coal miners to restore streams and return mined areas to the land uses available before mining occurred. This process would explicitly include replanting native trees and vegetation.

Of note, mine operators already undertake some of this kind of environmental restoration. The regulation acknowledges these steps and wil create greater consistency from all mining operations to maximize land recovery, the Interior Department noted.

However, the National Mining Association is pressing Congress to halt implementation of the rule, saying it is “unnecessary” because strong environmental protections are guaranteed by current laws and state and federal agencies.

“It has nothing to do with new science and everything to do with an old and troubling agenda for separating more coal miners from their jobs,” claimed Hal Quinn, NMA’s president and CEO.