Stop the Madness! U.S. House Passes the Stop the War on Coal Act

Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made” – John Godfrey Saxe, lawyer/poet.

When it comes to one of the newest bills passed by the House, I think I would rather take a tour of one of Upton Sinclair’s slaughterhouses than venture into the warped minds of those who voted to pass the “Stop the War on Coal Act.”  This monstrosity, which passed the House on Friday, September 21, contains five separate bills, each more appalling than the one before.  [For more specifics on the problems with this bill see Earthjustice's blog about the legislation]  As the name suggests this measure was passed by those who have lost their sense of reality or are closely connected to the coal industry or both – in other words, there actually is no war on coal.  What is actually happening is that the country is becoming evermore conscious of the negative impacts of coal, both to human health and the environment, and slowly but surely steps are being taken to address those impacts.  To be clear, we are not taking gigantic, war mongering steps against coal.  In fact, most of the more progressive regulations have been killed or stymied in political vacuums with seemingly little hope of being resurrected – RIP the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009. 

Although this legislation will likely not reach the Senate this year and has already been promised a big, fat veto if it reached President Obama’s desk, there are still many reasons why you should be troubled by this bill.  To explain lets look at each of the five bills contained in the Act individually.

1.  The Coal Miner Employment and Domestic Energy Infrastructure Protection Act

With an Apple Pie title like that, the authors of this bill hope such a warm name will distract you from the fact that this bill prohibits the Secretary of the Interior from passing rules that may reduce coal revenue, including regulation of coal mining OR regulations that designate any lands as unsuitable for “surface domestic consumption.”  That is some clever word play.  “Surface domestic consumption” is code for mountaintop removal coal mining; an environmentally devastating practice that, itself, reduces coal miner jobs by replacing coal miners with a gigantic dragline that scrapes the tops off of mountains.  The danger of this legislation lies in its broad wording as it could capture laws that are primarily aimed at protecting wildlife through prohibition of surface mining in wilderness areas or in national parks. Move over Bambi, there’s a new kid in town and his name is Mr. Surface Mine.

2.  The Energy Tax Prevention Act

It’s been 5 years since the Supreme Court found that greenhouse gas emissions can and should be regulated under the Clean Air Act.  You would think the Supreme Court decision, Massachusetts v. EPA would put an end to the whole “does the Clean Air Act cover greenhouse gases” question, but apparently it wasn’t settled for some members of the House.  The authors of this bill claim that it isn’t weakening the Clean Air Act, it is trying to ensure the Act isn’t used for nefarious purposes – like regulating harmful greenhouse gas emissions.  This bill stinks of politics.  The pro-coal agenda wasn’t able to get rid of greenhouse gas regulation in the courts, so now they are attempting to use the legislative branch to sound the final death knell.

3.  The TRAIN Act

Supposedly focused on job protection, this portion is the “let’s create a new agency “ part of the bill.  The TRAIN Act, written by Rep. John Sullivan (OK), would create an independent agency whose purpose is to analyze the cumulative economic impacts of environmental regulations on American manufacturing, global competitiveness, energy prices and… wait for it… jobs.  Huge red alarms should accompany this bill.  This pretend agency would put an economic analysis element in every environmental regulation.  If an environmental law’s proposed benefits are outweighed by the economic costs then it could be rejected, bar none.  If that doesn’t scare you, let me remind you that many environmental benefits are almost impossible to monetize – how much are polar bears worth? clean air? swimmable lakes?

4.  The Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act

Which brings us to “coal residuals,” they sound harmless, right?  Tell that to the residents of Kingston, TN who suffered the catastrophic effects of a 1.1 billion gallon spill of coal residual.  Coal residuals, or coal ash as its more commonly known, contains a cornucopia of toxins (many of which are known carcinogens); arsenic, lead, mercury, and dioxins just to name a few.  Coal ash is currently sitting in over 1,000 aging, leaky coal ash lagoons across the nation.  This bill aims to keep the Environmental Protection Agency from even being able to regulate the storage of coal ash.  Authors of this bill argue  that coal ash should not be covered by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, even though RCRA was designed to protect us from the harms caused by improper storage of hazardous waste, like that contained in industrial landfills or coal ash lagoons.  Failing to regulate coal ash will only result in further pollution around shoddily constructed coal ash ponds and potentially even the loss of human life.

5.  The Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act

Last, but certainly not least, is what I like to call, the water wars in the “war on coal.”  Once again, we have a bill that aims to reign in EPA’s supposedly crazy meddling in trying to protect the environment by ensuring that states have the primary power in setting water quality standards.  Despite any indications otherwise, this bill was written to ensure that coal companies can go right on filling in mountain streams and polluting water bodies as they tear the tops off of mountains to get to all that coal.

If you aren’t outraged that some of our elected representatives took this Act seriously, let alone allowed it to pass the House, then I leave you with a little perspective.

Let’s look at some examples of legislation deemed unfit to see the light of day outside of the House floor: a bill by Rep. Ed Markey to create a federal renewable electricity and energy efficiency standard; a bill by Rep. Peter DeFazio requiring EPA and the Department of Transportation to report to Congress on the health, environmental and public-health impacts of fugitive coal dust; and another bill by Rep. Markey to allow regulations under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act  that would reduce the prevalence of pulmonary disease, lung cancer, cardiovascular disease or reduce the prevalence of birth defects or reproductive problems in pregnant women or children.  Whew, good thing we didn’t let those crazy bills that reduce energy bills, keep women and children healthier and reduce the incidence of lung cancer get out.  People could have been living longer lives, with more money and their non-asthmatic children could have been playing in the fresh air.

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