A U.S. House subcommittee on natural resources looked at the redevelopment needs for regions turning away from coal production Tuesday, with witnesses from coal workers and Native American communities saying energy companies should be responsible for returning the land to its pre-mining state.
Much of the discussion at the Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee hearing revolved around the concept of “environmental justice” and the restoration of mining sites, including the recently closed coal production sites in the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona.
“These communities, and Indian Country in particular, have really been exploited,” said subcommittee chairman Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.). “It’s a really terrible, terrible situation.”
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Republicans, however, have criticized the resistance to fossil fuels as “killing jobs”, saying that switching to cleaner energy sources has resulted in job losses and a negative impact on economic development in mining regions. Some western states like Wyoming have managed to strike a balance between protecting the environment and fossil fuel production, they said.
US MP Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) Said Wyoming’s experience did not remove responsibility from the “dead coal companies” that brought “very real burdens and hardships” to struggling communities.
Coal in decline
Coal consumption has declined 46% from its peak in 2007 US Energy Information Agency, a US Department of Energy agency.
That decline has led the industry to abandon mines, often without the cleanups required by federal law, said Mary Cromer, assistant director of the Appalachian Citizens Law Center, a group that advocates for coal workers and others who work near mining sites Life.
“As coal mining declines, coal mining regulations are not keeping pace and coal companies are increasingly giving up environmental commitments and leaving too little loan money to cover recovery costs,” she said. “Coal field communities fear that they will be forever burdened with dangerous and unusable land and polluted streams.”
One particularly affected community is the Navajo Nation, home of the Kayenta and Black Mesa coal mines and the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station, which closed in 2019.
The Navajo people took the brunt of the job losses when these sites closed in 2019, as well as the environmental degradation from decades of mining that has still not been mitigated, said Nicole Horseherder, executive director of Arizona-based Native American environmental group Tó Nizhóní Ání.
Mining has “scarred” Navajo lands and polluted local water supplies, she said. Leases require Peabody Western Energy, the operator of the northern Arizona mines and assets, to bring the land back to the same quality as it was before mining, but the company has failed to meet that standard and the federal government has done little to coerce the company , She said.
Congress should “require a major revision of the mine permit” before extending permits for companies like Peabody to force them to complete the cleanup, Horseherder said.
Republicans said federal bureaucracy could slow down the mine recovery process, citing Wyoming as an example of success.
The state’s coal mines are “managed in a manner that protects the state and enables the responsible development of coal resources,” said Kyle Wendtland, administrator for the Wyoming Land Quality Division.
The state annually reviews the bonds mining companies pay out to make sure they have enough cash to retake a disused mine.
Members of both parties agreed that the shutdown of coal-fired power plants had painful economic repercussions in some areas, but they disagreed on what should be done about it.
Republicans blamed democratic politics, which discouraged fossil fuels, for the closure of the Navajo Power Plant and other sites across the country.
The shutdown of coal-fired power plants is unfair to the tribes because it takes away jobs and cheap energy and blames the tribes for the global problem of climate change, Republicans said.
Reclamation and cleanup could provide employment opportunities for miners and other coal-stricken workers, Horseherder said, reiterating a component of the “just transition” away from fossil fuels that President Joe Biden and others have promoted to help displaced workers find new employment to help .
But the Republicans argued that was insufficient.
Most senior Republican on the subcommittee, Pete Stauber, said the average salary for most Navajo workers in the Kayenta mines is over $ 100,000. The jobs are much better paid and have lasted longer than the temporary jobs on a cleanup project, he said.
“Is the loss of hundreds and hundreds of unionized Native American jobs with an average salary of $ 117,000 a year part of a just transition?” asked Stauber, who represents a mining region in northern Minnesota.
Fossil fuel production and environmental protection can co-exist, said several Republican members.
Other witnesses urged the federal government to put in place better security measures to ensure mining companies pay to clean abandoned mines.
Joseph G. Pizarchik, director of the Federal Bureau of Mine Recovery and Enforcement during the Obama administration, called on Congress to ban self-borrowing. Self-bonds allow companies to offer just one promise to reclaim the website without a separate upfront payment to ensure funding is available. Pizarchik called self-bindings “essentially no commitment”.
“It is clear that the rules governing the use and replacement of self-bindings are not working and cannot be fixed,” he said.
MP Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) Praised her state’s Office of Just Transition, a Department of Labor and Employment agency that provides resources to displaced coal workers, and asked if a federal equivalent would help.
“That would be extremely helpful,” replied Horseherder.
Established by state law in 2019, the office initially attracted Republican contempt in the Colorado legislature. But during the 2021 legislature, GOP members advocated additional funding for the office.
Cromer said there are several strategies lawmakers should use to keep job losses to a minimum. The problem is too big for a single policy to suffice.
“Because our region has been dependent on this one industry for so long – and which has produced high-wage jobs in the past – there is no idea, not a single company that will be able to step in and make sure that transition happens,” she said said.
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