Congress rolls back protecting streams from coal mining

Alaska’s congressional delegation has voted with the Republican majority to overturn a rule that blocks coal mines from discharging waste into streams.

The U.S. Senate vote, 54-45, on Feb. 2, came in the wake of the House vote a day earlier, to reverse the Stream Protection Rule, and President Trump was expected to quickly sign the measure into law.

H. J. Resolution 38 is a joint resolution of disapproval under the Congressional Review Act to overturn the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s final rule known as the “Stream Buffer Rule.”

The vote in the House was 228-194.

The Stream Protection Rule earlier finalized by OSMRE was designed to improve the balance between environmental protection and providing for the nation’s need for coal as an energy source. OSMRE said the rule would better protect “streams, fish, wildlife, and related environmental values from adverse impacts of surface coal mining operations and provide mine operators with a regulatory framework to avoid water pollution and costs associated with water treatment. The rule is online https://www.osmre.gov/programs/rcm/streamprotectionrule.shtm

A report released in January by the Congressional Research Service (https://www.everycrsreport.com/files/20170111_R44150_aeb8ad15c32441ec3bdb6788400bda94f4aa8d86.pdf) identified environmental and health benefits of the rule, including stream restoration requirements aimed at reducing human exposure to contaminants in drinking water.

The action was one of the first steps by Republicans to dismantle the Obama administration’s environmental regulations, this one to ease restrictions on the coal mining industry.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said that in drafting the regulation “the Obama administration ignored the input and recommendations of states and stakeholders, and subverted the law to meet its policy objective- keeping coal in the ground.

“Left intact, this rule would have cost us jobs and revenues, from Alaska to Appalachia,” Murkowski said. “By overturning it, we will avoid those significant impacts, and help ensure a continued supply of reliable, affordable energy for Americans all across the country.”

Murkowski chairs a field hearing in Fairbanks in March 2016 where a spokesperson for Usibelli Coal in Healy testified that the Stream Protection Rule would likely kill all coal development in Alaska. Murkowski chairs the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, also voted to overturn SPR.

“This job-killing rule was issued by the Obama administration without considering the concerns and comments raised during the rulemaking process,” he said.

The rule “created a blanket national regulation that seriously limits the availability of abundant and affordable resources to power the lights and heat our homes in Interior Alaska and other regions across the country.”

Rep. Don Young, applauded Senate passage of H.J. 38, saying “the rule was a thinly veiled attempt to destroy the coal mining industry and regulate hardworking Americans right out of their livelihoods.

“Sadly, the Obama administration’s war on coal manifested into some of the worst rule making I’ve seen in years –debilitating new regulations focused on eliminating one of our nation’s most reliable domestic energy sources,” Young said.

Bering River coal deposits

The congressional action could have potential impact on salmon fisheries in the Prince William Sound area, where some Bering River Coal Field rights are being sold and retired and others remain. The Bering River District alone produces thousands of sockeye and coho salmon for commercial harvesters, as well as sport and subsistence users.

A large portion of coal rights for the Bering River Coal Field, 55 miles southeast of Cordova, are being sold and retired, as reported in the Jan. 27 edition of The Cordova Times. The action came as a result of an agreement reached by Chugach Alaska Corp., New Forests, The Nature Conservancy, and the Native Conservancy Land Trust.

The deal to conserve 62,000 acres is the first part of a two-part puzzle to conserve and protect the sustainability of this region, said Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska marine advisor who has studied the history of this conservation controversy, and worked to gain environmental protection for the area.

While congratulations on that agreement are due all involved, that agreement does not include the largest Bering River coal deposit, now owned by a Korean company, which remains available to be sold or mined, Steiner said.

“Efforts to retire the larger Bering River/Carbon Mountain coal field continue with new urgency given the new federal administration’s declared support for coal development. The CAC/New Forest deal partially conserves an area of unparalled ecological value – truly one of the world’s ‘last best places’. The area was the heart of Alaska’s first conservation controversy over a century ago, and an area we have sought to protect ever since the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill,” Steiner said.

Steiner, who now does environmental sustainability consulting through Oasis Earth

((www.oasis-earth.com) was the UA marine advisor for the Prince William Sound/North Gulf coast region from 1983-1997, based in Cordova, and commercial fished in the Gulf of Alaska for many years. It was Steiner who first proposed the Bering River/Carbon Mountain conservation deal in 1997, and he has worked ever since with affiliates including the Eyak Preservation Council, Ecotrust and others to protect the area, as well as on climate change issues. The CAC/New Forest deal “is an historic conservation achievement,” he said.

Beyond the immediate value to conserving the sustainable fish, wildlife, and wilderness values of this region, the CAC deal likely represents the first significant carbon sequestration deal in Alaska history, the first carbon sequestration deal by an Alaska Native corporation, and the first time a hydrocarbon resource in Alaska will be left in the ground to help mitigate global climate change, Steiner said.

“And importantly, the agreement shows that efforts to address climate change will continue despite the new administration’s dangerous indifference to the issue,” he said. “Hopefully this agreement will provide a model for future such carbon deals across Alaska, the Nation, and the world,” he said.

Another such carbon sequestration opportunity in Alaska is the huge Point Lay coalfield on Alaska’s North Slope, Steiner said. That potentially three trillion tons of coal, a “carbon bomb” larger than the Alberta tar sands, is owned by Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. Mining and burning even 15 percent of that much coal would surpass the total emissions that climate scientists say would increase global temperatures beyond 2C, Steiner said.

“Climate scientists have concluded that, in order to stabilize global climate, 80 percent of the world’s coal reserves need to be left in the ground, Steiner said. “The Bering River/Carbon Mountain deal begins to do just that. And as the region is at the foot of the largest non-polar ice field in the world, the Bagley Ice Field, which is currently seriously affected by warming due to global carbon emissions, this carbon sequestration deal is globally symbolic and important,” he said.

“Most previous carbon sequestration deals have conserved forests (as carbon sinks), but generally not hydrocarbon reserves, such as coal. Significantly, the CAC deal does both, and that is entirely appropriate, and is a model for future such carbon sequestration efforts. While this deal is largely private sector, it is facilitated by the 2006 California law requiring carbon offsets for large-scale carbon emitters, as well as the federal income tax write-offs that may accrue to CAC,” he said.

“We understand that under the agreement, CAC receives payment from New Forests at less than what is considered fair market value for the forests and coal on these lands, and that CAC may then write the loss off of its federal taxes,” he said.
“This is entirely appropriate, as it provides a way for all Americans to share in the cost, as well as the benefit, of sequestering this carbon, and in the conservation of this remarkable place,” he said.

The conservation controversy over the Bering River/Carbon Mountain region dates back over a century, when the Guggenheim-Morgan “Alaska Syndicate” proposed building a railroad from the coastal region to facilitate industrial development of Alaska, noted Steiner, who has studied the history of the area. This prompted then President Teddy Roosevelt to protect much of the region, bringing it into the newly created Chugach National Forest. Subsequently, 73,000 acres in the core of the area was selected by CAC, and most of the large Bering River/Carbon Mountain coal resource was sold by CAC to the Korean Alaska Development Corporation (KADCO).

“The Bering River/Carbon Mountain region remains one of the most remarkable, ecologically productive anywhere in Alaska, if not the world,” Steiner said. “Local residents recognized the need for comprehensive conservation of the region over 20 years ago, and began approaching parties involved at that time, including KADCO, CAC, the Alaska delegation, and other potentially interested parties.

“Mining the KADCO Bering River/Carbon Mountain coal deposit would seriously erode the ecological function of the region, as well as the value of the CAC/New Forest deal,” Steiner said. :An offer to retire the KADCO coal patent was made by Ecotrust, in Portland, OR, in 2001, but the offer was declined,” he said. “Today we are resolved to finish the job, and retire the KADCO coal patent once and for all.”