U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell accused President Barack Obama's administration Wednesday of declaring war on Kentucky's coal industry through onerous regulations and said it is time for Congress to rein in the Environmental Protection Agency.
Speaking at a meeting of the Kentucky Coal Association in Lexington, McConnell also called for passage of a bill he is co-sponsoring that would require the EPA to "act within a reasonable time frame" in handling mining permits. The bill would give the EPA 60 days to accept or reject mining-permit applications.
McConnell noted in his speech that the EPA recently withdrew a water-quality permit previously issued by the Army Corps of Engineers to a mine in southern West Virginia, shutting it down and throwing 90 miners out of work.
"Every mine in Kentucky is similarly threatened," McConnell said. "The EPA declared even more permit applications to be under enhanced review, in effect playing a 'run out the clock' game and putting many Kentucky mining operations in limbo, along with the economic activity mining could create."
Bill Bissett, president of the association, said some permits have been pending as long as five years, and applicants do not know how to proceed.
McConnell's proposed Mining Jobs Protection Act, also sponsored by U.S. Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and James Inhofe, R-Okla., would benefit the coal industry, Bissett said. "We are basically in a game of time management with regulators that we cannot win," he said.
Brendan Gilfillan, a spokesman for the EPA, said in an email that coal is important to the nation's energy future and that the agency has "taken a series of reasonable, common-sense steps to protect the health of our families while working with stakeholders, industry and others to minimize costs."
Kentucky environmentalists took issue with McConnell's remarks.
"Kentucky has a great opportunity, right now, to transition to a clean-energy economy. Instead, the speech shows how out of touch Mitch McConnell is with his constituents in Kentucky and current science," said Doug Doerrfeld, a recent chairman of the environmental activist group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. "Kentuckians want clean air to breathe and clean water to drink, and recent EPA action to protect air and water quality is supported by dozens of peer-reviewed scientific studies."
Tom FitzGerald, director of Kentucky Resources Council, said the EPA is simply following its congressional mandate.
"It's fashionable for some in political circles to criticize the EPA, but the agency now is following what Congress wanted done in 1972, when it was created to protect waterways," FitzGerald said.
Congress wanted water pollution to end by 1985, "but that deadline was missed," he said. "Now the EPA is doing something about it, and it gets criticized. The reality is that the laws, for the first time, are being enforced. No polluter has the right to pollute public waters. This action is hardly a war on coal."
FitzGerald also said the coal industry could suffer under McConnell's proposed bill regarding permits.
"Sometimes it takes longer than 60 days to review a permit," he said. "With passage of this bill, the coal industry could find more permits rejected because of lack of time to review them."
McConnell, though, said the EPA's actions "defy logic."
"Not only are they changing the rules in the middle of the game, they are retroactively changing rules to shut down mines they've already approved," he said. "No mine, regardless of whether it has been operating for years in full compliance of every rule and regulation, can be assured that the Obama administration won't come calling to shut them down."
McConnell also claimed the EPA wants "to impose a back-door national energy tax" on Americans by regulating carbon-dioxide emissions from coal plants using the Clean Air Act.
"It directly targets Kentucky's coal industry by making coal-fired power more expensive," he said.
Recent news that Kentucky Utilities and LG&E want to raise environmental surcharges on customers' bills is "a direct result of the train wreck of regulations coming from the agency," McConnell said. "Rates are going to go up on Kentucky families by 19 percent — nearly a fifth — by 2016.
"And thanks to EPA's regulations, the power companies are floating the idea of abandoning some of their coal-burning power stations altogether."
Gilfillan said there is no standard for carbon pollution from power plants, "and no standard will go into effect until next year, providing ample time to work with industry and other stakeholders to develop any new standards."
The EPA's real goal, McConnell said, "is not to see the Kentucky coal industry comply with its boatload of regulations and red tape. It is to see the Kentucky coal industry driven out of business altogether."
The coal industry is vital to Kentucky, McConnell said, employing 18,000 people, paying more than $1 billion in direct wages yearly and bringing in more than $3.5 billion from out of state. "All of that is at stake in the administration's war on coal," he said.
McConnell also gave a nod to state Senate President David Williams, this year's Republican nominee for governor of Kentucky. "People in Washington are always looking for alternatives to coal. What they don't seem to realize, as my friend David Williams has said, is that the alternative to coal ... is darkness," he said.
In addition to talking about coal, McConnell noted discussions under way in Washington on raising the national debt ceiling of $14.3 trillion.
McConnell said he would not predict the outcome of debate on the issue but promised his vote would depend on what is done about excessive spending.