Obama administration officials may have pressured government contractors to change job loss estimates associated with coal regulations, audio recordings reveal.
The tapes show that unnamed officials with the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM) asked government contractors to change their calculations of job losses associated with the Stream Protection Rule.
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A preliminary draft of an environmental impact statement estimated that up to 7,000 coalminers could lose their jobs under the administration’s "preferred" regulation. After a leaked copy of the report went public, officials asked the contractors to compare job estimates to a model in which another regulation was enforced, rather than the real world numbers.
"It’s not the real world, this is rulemaking," an OSM official tells a skeptical contractor on the recording.
"If we’re to assume [the 2008 rule] is enforced in the coal-producing states, this is a very small [impact]," the contractor replies. "But that, as you said, is not the real world, that’s pretending … I thought we were looking at what’s going to change in Kentucky, what’s going to change in Pennsylvania, what’s going to change in Ohio, what’s going to change in Wyoming."
When a second OSM official makes light of the "theoretical discussion," the contractor shoots back that "his [the OSM official’s proposed criteria] was theoretical, mine was practical."
The agency fired the contractors studying the rule less than one month later.
The House Natural Resources Committee obtained the tapes from an unidentified third party after OSM provided heavily redacted transcripts—the exchange above, for example, was blacked out—and withheld the audio recordings.
Rep. Bill Johnson (R., Ohio) blasted the administration’s refusal to cooperate with the investigation.
"The tapes validated many of our concerns that the administration went into this with an intent of devastating the coal industry, fully knowing that the provisions in the proposed rule would put 7,000 jobs at risk," he said. "And they wanted to get away with it by playing pretend."
The committee has served OSM with two subpoenas since the beginning of the year. Department officials denied any wrongdoing and accused the committee of launching a political witch-hunt.
"The documents reflect the fact that there is a lot of analysis, discussion, and input that’s needed if we’re going to have a balanced rule that continues to support the development of important domestic resources," Department of the Interior spokesman Adam Fetcher said. "We look forward to the Committee’s input on the substantive issues at any time, including once a rule is proposed, but the Committee’s cherry-picking of the documents to manufacture a false narrative shows again that their investigation is about politics, not good policymaking."
Contractors and officials acknowledged in the closed-door meetings that rewriting the rule would be "atomic" for small businesses and start-up coal operations and worried aloud that spending $200 million per year to protect only 15 miles of stream in high unemployment regions such as Appalachia would be a hard "sell."
Since 1983, mining companies have conducted operations while maintaining a 100-foot barrier between their activities and streams.
The rule, known originally as the Stream Buffer Zone Rule, was never codified and has been loosely enforced. George W. Bush signed an official Stream Buffer Zone rule in 2008 that maintained the 100-foot restriction, but also included more exemptions for mining companies to conduct operations within the barrier.
When Obama came into office, he ordered OSM to rewrite the rule to please his environmentalist base. OSM has spent more than $5 million studying the impacts of sediment run off and water protection and hopes to release an official rule proposal later this year.
Former contractors who studied the rule told the Washington Free Beacon that such a calculation would have made job losses seem smaller, but also denied that OSM acted inappropriately.
The committee released the tapes on Friday. OSM officials have until May 24 to respond to a second subpoena from the committee. Johnson pledged to continue pushing for transparency at the agency.
"We’re going to keep marching down this path," he said. "We’re not going to stop until we get a full accounting of why the administration has chosen to rewrite this rule and why they are going about it in a speedy, haphazard way."
Fetcher said that OSM has fully cooperated with the committee, providing it with more than 13,000 pages of documents detailing the history of the rule.
He did not respond to an email asking if the department would release the recordings before the deadline, however.