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Coal mine oversight spotlight

Nov 14, 2023
Abandoned mine equipment

Abandoned equipment at a former coal mine in Welch, W.Va. Photo: Ian Mahathey/Bloomberg via Getty Images

An obscure coal state issue — abandoned mine land regulatory authority — is taking up considerable time on the Hill.

Why it matters: Fights over abandoned mine lands cross into almost every hot-button energy issue, from climate, labor rights and workplace safety to the future of federalism.

  • The conflict — which is over how fast money gets disbursed to cleanup projects — could turn into legislation or an approps rider.

Driving the news: The House Natural Resources' Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources is hearing Tuesday from Glenda Owens, acting head of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (or OSMRE).

  • OSMRE regulates safety at the dwindling number of U.S. coal mines and is in the midst of rewriting Trump-era rules for surprise inspections.
  • The office also oversees cleanup projects at former coal mining sites. It's in the middle of doling out $11.3 billion in infrastructure law funding to companies working to restore the many locations that need attention for public safety reasons.

What we're watching: Concerns about cleanup cash.

  • OSMRE put out guidance earlier this year for projects' funding eligibility, with a focus on Biden-administration policy priorities that weren't in the infrastructure law, including climate impacts, environmental justice and labor agreements.
  • Lots of developers and conservation nonprofits care about this cash, and the jobs it generates will last years.
  • But some lawmakers clearly don't want too many strings tied to the funds, especially if they're attached to partisan priorities.
  • A GOP committee memo states: "The administration's entire approach to [infrastructure law] funding implementation stands in contrast to the longstanding, successful function of the [abandoned mine land] program."

Members are also fuming about another OSMRE cleanup program, known as AMLER, which they claim is slow-walking funding disbursements.

  • The memo notes the House's FY24 Interior-environment funding bill would dock salaries and expenses at OSMRE by $100,000 per day if the agency can't meet statutory deadlines to release AMLER money.
  • Sen. Joe Manchin is frustrated about AMLER delays too. At a hearing last week he told Owens: "People are desperate to get this done, and they'll never have another opportunity like we have today to do that."
  • Manchin told Owens he would be open to writing legislation, if needed, to make sure the money gets out with haste.

What we're not watching: Accusations that OSMRE is slow-walking coal mine approvals.

  • The GOP memo references a back-and-forth between Owens and Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon about a mine. It claims the agency is needlessly stalling the project's reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act by citing the recent debt deal as new case law.
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