Scott Pruitt, the new administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, chose a Western Pennsylvania coal mine to start his “Back-to-Basics” tour on Thursday, where he declared that “the war on coal is done.”
Dozens of Consol Energy miners, in hard hats and coveralls, some with coal dust on their faces and hands, cheered as Mr. Pruitt delivered a short speech, received an honorary Consol hard hat with the inscription “Make America Great Again” and thanked them for their work.
Where the previous administration tried to convince people that there’s a choice to be made between environmental protection and the work these miners do, Mr. Pruitt said, that will no longer be the calculation in Washington.
“It’s been said that you can’t have your cake and eat it too, and I’ll tell you, whoever says that doesn’t know what you’re supposed to do with cake,” he said.
More than 1,500 people work at the Bailey Mine complex, which includes three mines: Bailey, Enlow Fork and Harvey, a portal to which served as the venue for the event.
“In the last eight years, we’ve all felt a lot of pain,” said Jimmy Brock, CEO of CNX Coal Resources, a master limited partnership that Consol spun out in 2015 to operate Bailey — the largest underground mining complex in the United States.
“We’re ready for a new chapter,” he said.
Mr. Brock was at the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency two weeks ago when President Donald Trump signed an executive order that targeted a half-dozen Obama-era regulations to curb climate change, including Mr. Obama’s signature Clean Power Plan. The rule aimed to limit carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generators and would hit coal plants the hardest.
Mr. Pruitt didn’t mention carbon dioxide or climate change in his brief remarks at Consol, nor did he talk about the stream protection rule, which Congress and Mr. Trump rescinded soon after the new president took the oath of office. That rule, finalized just weeks before the change in administration, would have required coal companies to restore affected streams to their pre-mined conditions.
Instead, Mr. Pruitt talked about jobs and how the government can help unleash American energy growth.
Mr. Brock, who called Mr. Pruitt a “true leader on issues that matter to us,” said he doesn’t recall an EPA administrator visiting a coal mine to learn what miners do, “and, more importantly, how they can help us.”
“The regulatory assault is over,” Mr. Pruitt promised.
“It’s encouraging, isn’t it?” Mr. Brock said to nodding heads. “All of us that mine coal will never apologize for what we do.”
Greg Bernot, a mechanic and electrician at the Harvey Mine, appreciated the attitude.
“I think Mr. Pruitt is an extraordinary individual,” he said, having read about his record as Oklahoma’s attorney general, a post he used to sharply criticize the agency he now leads and file more than a dozen lawsuits against its regulations, many of which he is now working to dismantle.
“I just hope that he can accomplish what his intentions are,” Mr. Bernot said. “Get the EPA to quit trying to make laws.”
Mr. Bernot, who grew up in Carmichaels, said he remembers the days when the majority of homes were heated with coal — how his parents had to wash their walls several times a year to wipe off the soot.
But he bemoaned the closure of dozens of coal-fired power plants and said he believed that federal environmental regulators had not considered whether it’s cost-effective to keep asking for incremental emission reductions when so much progress has already been made.
Coal miner Patrick Blinco of St. Clarksville, Ohio, listens as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt address the crowd Thursday at the Harvey Mine in Sycamore, Pa. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)
The Back-to-Basics agenda, according to the EPA, is about “protecting the environment by engaging with state, local, and tribal partners to create sensible regulations that enhance economic growth.”
Mr. Pruitt has talked about returning power to the states and several weeks ago sent a letter to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection announcing that “the days of coercive federalism are over.”
DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said he would welcome a discussion on how the two regulatory bodies can “build on the relationships that have served us for more than 40 years.”
But the recently proposed budget cuts — the Trump administration wants to cut 31 percent from the EPA’s budget and lay off a quarter of its staff — are an indication that the “federal government is turning its back” on those relationships,” Mr. McDonnell said.
“The DEP sincerely hopes that the days of cooperative federalism are not over as well,” he said.
No one from the DEP was invited to attend Mr. Pruitt’s event, nor tour the mine with him, or participate in the private roundtable between the administrator and members of the coal industry, including representatives from Consol, Kittaning-based Rosebud Mining and GMS Mine Repair & Maintenance.
It’s clear that Consol feels it has a friend in Mr. Pruitt and in Mr. Trump
“Needless to say we’re very excited to see a new governing philosophy from the incoming administration that embraces what we do,” Tommy Johnson, Consol’s vice president for government affairs, said at the company’s analyst day last year, shortly after the presidential election.
“This onslaught of rulemakings and policy initiatives by the [Obama] administration are expected to be rescinded or weakly defended before the courts” when Mr. Trump comes to power, Mr. Thompson said.
At the same event, however, when Consol’s CEO Nick DeIuliis was asked whether the election changed the company’s thinking about its intention to sell the coal business and focus solely on gas, Mr. DeIuliis said it hadn’t really.
Two things have been depressing coal’s role in the electric grid, he said — the shale gas revolution that has made natural gas a cheaper fuel than coal, and environmental regulations.
“Nobody really knew which one was the main driver and which one was just the catalyst that sped it up,” he said.
And although Mr. Trump’s presidency loosened the “heavy hand” of regulations, “we still see a permanent reset here,” he said, with gas capturing market share from coal
Environmentalists fire back
Mr. Pruitt, who took no questions from reporters on Thursday, seemed aware of the visual of an EPA administrator hanging out in a coal mine.
He accused “some on the environmental left” of conflating his visits with industry with trying to compromise environmental outcomes.
Indeed, environmental groups in the region were highly critical of Mr. Pruitt’s message and choice of venue.
“When Administrator Pruitt says he wants to get the EPA ‘back-to-basics’ we all know he wants to send the agency back to the days before the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, laws which have protected Pennsylvania families from harmful pollution for decades,” said Randy Francisco, an organizer for Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, who spoke at a news conference organized by the Sierra Club and the Center for Coalfield Justice.
“And to launch his polluter-friendly agenda, Pruitt chose a mine that was fined $3 million for Clean Water Act violations just last year,” Mr. Francisco said.
In August, Consol signed a consent decree with the EPA and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection that stemmed from the regulatory agencies’ findings that five years prior the company was discharging too many pollutants into tributaries to the Ohio River.
Environmental groups were also unnerved by Mr. Pruitt’s implication that environmental regulations must not infringe on job prospects for coal miners.
“More people are employed in Pennsylvania’s clean energy industry at 66,000 than in its coal industry, which dwindles at 6,600,” PennFuture, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group said in a statement.
Hours after Mr. Pruitt left the Harvey Mine portal, the EPA sent out a notice that it is delaying compliance deadlines for regulations finalized in 2015 that set the first limits for toxic metal discharges in wastewater from power plants.
“Some of our nation’s largest job producers have objected to this rule, saying the requirements set by the Obama administration are not economically or technologically feasible within the proscribed time frame,” Mr. Pruitt said in a statement.
Compliance was set to begin next year. The EPA is now reconsidering the rule.
Anya Litvak: email@example.com or 412-263-1455.