EPA must balance its role as environmental watchdog

April 16, 2017
Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter Exterior of the Observer-Reporter building in Washington.

It must have been jarring for environmentalists to see the head of the Environmental Protection Agency standing in the middle of a coal mine cheerleading for the industry, all while from behind a podium bearing an EPA seal.

“The war on coal is over,” EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt declared to a friendly audience at CONSOL Energy’s Harvey Mine in Greene County.

Pruitt’s visit Thursday came on the heels of President Trump’s executive orders directing the EPA to review the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. This will likely mean the removal of many regulations on the energy industry. During his tour of the facility, Pruitt announced a “back-to-basics” agenda that he said would refocus the EPA’s mission and return more regulatory powers to the states.

The miners and company officials seemed to breathe a sigh of relief after eight years of the Obama administration tightening clean-air regulations – in an effort to combat climate change – that mostly targeted the coal industry.

In fact, CNX Coal Resources Chief Executive Officer Jimmy Brock was downright giddy during his speech, saying he never remembered a high-ranking EPA official ever visiting one of the company’s coal mines.

“It’s easy to be optimistic now,” Brock said while addressing the miners.

It’s no secret that the previous administration had an adversarial relationship with the industry, which wasn’t good for the economy here as mines and coal-fired power plants closed in both Greene and Washington counties. The previous administration’s measures, although important to curb climate change, left many in coal country reeling.

But it seems that the pendulum has now swung too far to the other side.

Pruitt is right that the government needs to work closer with the industry to at least understand its concerns while crafting rules and regulations. Wearing a hard hat with his name emblazoned on the side, Pruitt toured the mine in order to “listen and learn” more about the industry.

One suggestion is to remove regulations that are duplicated between the federal and state agencies, which would allow the state governments that know their communities the best to have more oversight.

But Pruitt also said he believes the EPA and coal industry can “partner together” to achieve better results. Regardless of which side of the issue you’re on – from environmentalists to free-market capitalists – we all should agree that while government watchdogs should not be actively working to destroy any sector of the economy, they also shouldn’t “partner” with the industries they police.

“The past administration said we had to choose between the environment and job growth,” Pruitt said. “This administration says the opposite. We can achieve both and we will.”

That statement is at best wishful thinking and at worst disingenuous.

The energy industry will always impact the environment, whether it’s nuclear power leaving behind legacy waste, Marcellus Shale fracking and the air and water concerns that come with it, coal mining that undermines streams or even wind power that has killed birds and bats. But we will always need energy – including coal – to generate the electricity that powers our daily lives.

Whether it’s Trump or Obama, it seems that Americans have been forced to choose between an either-or proposal balancing energy needs and environmental concerns.

There has to be some meeting ground in the middle that recognizes the economic need for domestically-produced energy while still understanding we only have so much time left to reverse climate change.

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