GOP says coal mine closures underscore Obama 'war on coal'

By Zack Colman - 09/18/12 03:00 PM ET

Republicans used a large coal firm’s decision to halt mining at eight sites Tuesday to attack President Obama’s regulatory policies that the GOP says targets the coal industry.

Alpha Natural Resources, which possesses the world’s third-largest supply of coal, will cut 1,200 workers. The firm’s CEO blamed the move on a combination of low natural-gas prices and new regulations, a comment that echoes other recent coal mine closures.

The news comes as the GOP-controlled House plans to vote on a package of bills dubbed the "Stop the War on Coal Act” this week. Bill proponents have pushed the legislation as a jobs issue, and as a means to rein in what they view as executive overreach.

“Each of these companies has cited EPA actions as a contributing factor to their decision to shut down operations and lay off workers,” a House Energy and Commerce Committee spokesperson told The Hill on Tuesday. “EPA is ramming through a slew of new regulations that are so expensive these companies have no other choice.”

The new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations come at a time of low natural-gas prices that have brought heightened competition to the coal industry. Many electricity generators have switched to burning natural gas for economic reasons, leaving coal in the lurch.

"Coal is expected to generate more of America’s electricity than any other fuel source, however, economic factors such as low natural gas prices, low electricity demand, and rising coal prices are reducing demand," EPA told The Hill in a statement Tuesday. "Market conditions in the power sector are driving business decisions that are completely independent from long-overdue pollution standards."

Republicans on Tuesday sought to de-emphasize the impact of natural-gas prices on Alpha’s decision, instead pinning recent coal mine closures on the new EPA rules.

“In today’s market, natural gas is plentiful and cheaper than coal, so in many instances it is being used as a substitute for coal,” Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) said Tuesday in a statement. “But, the fact that the coal industry has ups and downs isn’t news. The newsworthy issue lies with the additional burdens the Obama Administration is placing on folks like Alpha.”

Chief among those EPA rules is the mercury air toxins standard, known as the Utility MACT rule. That rule would for the first time impose mercury emission limits on coal-fired power plants.

The EPA has also proposed the first-ever carbon emissions standards for new coal-fired power plants.

Matt Dempsey, a GOP spokesman for the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, told The Hill on Tuesday that the administration’s regulatory approach is a jobs issue for coal-dependent areas.

“I think the question is about what is the long-term trend of natural gas prices?” The prices are lower this year, but if you go to United Mine Workers, the business community and people in Appalachia, they are concerned that the Obama administration is zeroing in on their jobs."

Eben Burnham-Snyder, a spokesman for House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), said "market forces" explained the mining closures.

"The only war coal is losing is the one to natural gas, wind, solar and other emerging energy sources," he told The Hill.

— This story was updated at 5:54 p.m.

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