Economic concerns won't sway EPA



Carol Beinkoski said the Environmental Protection Agency's two days of public hearings on proposed carbon-pollution regulations were a sham, suggesting that the agency already had made up its mind.

"Yes, I'm angry," she told the agency's representatives Friday morning in Downtown Pittsburgh. "You're putting miners out of work."

Ms. Beinkoski, a retired West Virginia coal miner, came, like thousands of other United Mine Workers of America members, to stress that her pension could be at risk if the EPA enacts carbon-emissions rules that are so strict that coal companies might be forced to close.

She made a passionate economic argument, even if it won’t affect the EPA’s ultimate decision on the proposal, .

The federal agency is tasked with protecting people's health and the environment and doesn’t craft rules based on economic consequences.

The pension argument, raised by numerous miners who testified at the two-day hearing, was a new one for Shawn Garvin, the EPA's regional administrator in Philadelphia who was a member of the panel taking the testimony.

It's important information, he said, something he and his colleagues planned to pass along to the Obama administration, which could design programs to mitigate the economic blow some of the speakers predicted would pummel the Appalachian coalfields.

But the EPA can't change the proposed rules based on the possibility of lost jobs or pensions, Mr. Garvin said. It's not in the organization's charter.

It's a fact that Murray Energy, an Ohio-based coal operator, seized on in suing the EPA earlier this year to prevent the agency from making any more rules affecting coal until it commissions job-impact studies.

"The truth is that the decline in coal jobs began well before President Obama took office, largely as a result of market forces, including greater energy efficiency and cheap natural gas," said Liz Purchia, an EPA spokeswoman.

Coal and electric companies that have closed mines and power plants in the past few years have cited market conditions and government regulations as the reasons.

Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources announced Thursday that it would lay off 1,100 miners in West Virginia over the next several months, a move the company said was "being triggered by persistent weakness in U.S. and overseas coal demand and depressed price levels, along with government regulations that are causing electric utilities to close coal-fired power plants and forego new construction."

Ms. Purchia noted the proposed carbon pollution rules, also known as the Clean Power Plan, don't require coal plants to shut down if they can’t comply, although many experts agree that would be the result.

"Even with this rule, coal will be about a third of our energy supply," she said.

Many of those who testified Friday led with economic projections, speaking either for or against the rules.

Paul Pokrowka of the United Transportation Union, which represents railroad workers, said the proposal as written could hurt the railroad industry and the people it employs.

“These are not temporary jobs; these are career jobs,” Mr. Pokrowka said. “These people — my fellow workers, your neighbors — [their] precious careers are in jeopardy.”

But proposal supporters maintained that economic concerns were insufficient justification for delaying or weakening the EPA’s proposal. The costs associated with climate change, environmental activists argued, are too high.

Some touted the renewable energy industry as a job creator.

Matthew Nezbeth, an engineering student at the University of Pittsburgh, said in his testimony Friday afternoon that he hoped to debunk the “myth that climate change action is a battle of costs and jobs vs. the environment.”

“Many people, especially in the coal industry, fear for the loss of their jobs,” Mr. Nezbeth said. But citing jobs created by solar energy projects, he argued that with investment in renewable energy, an economic decline "does not have to be the case.”

Ms. Purchia said the EPA welcomed "comments and ideas on how to help communities transition to a new energy economy, diversify their economies and attract new sources of job-creating investment."

Ultimately, the Clean Power Plan is about reducing carbon pollution, not creating or destroying jobs, said Reid Harvey, director of EPA's Clean Air Markets Division.

"We need to lead on this," Ms. Purchia added. "This is becoming part of international talks."

But Richard Lucas of Morgantown, W.Va., a retired coal miner, wasn't following that logic.

"I cannot truly believe that countries like China and India will follow our lead. Why would they?" he said. "They will continue to mine and grow coal and grow financially."

Ken Schilling's customers at the Washington Rural Electric Cooperative in Ohio care about affordable, reliable, environmentally responsible electricity "in that order," he said.

Mr. Schilling, general manager and CEO of the organization, criticized the EPA for designing a policy that he said amounted to "a lot of pain for no gain" and said that was why climate change tended to be at the bottom of his clients' priority lists.

"Make no mistake, my members' top concern is affordability," he said.

But the EPA’s top concern is cleaner air, its representatives said, and that is what will shape the final Clean Power Plan.

The EPA will continue to take comments on the proposal until Oct. 16; a decision on their implementation is expected in June 2015.

 

 

Anya Litvak: alitvak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455; Madeline R. Conway: mconway@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1714 or on Twitter @MadelineRConway.

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