House approves 'Stop the War on Coal' bill in last act before November election

The House approved a bill Friday morning that would significantly deregulate the coal industry, in a vote that was the last legislative act of the House before the November election.

The Stop the War on Coal Act, H.R. 3409, was approved in a 233-175 vote, although as usual, the bill many Democrats described as anti-environmental still found some Democratic support — 19 Democrats voted for it.

The legislation is a combination of five bills that would overturn or prevent an array of regulations that Republicans say would harm the coal industry and the economy. Among other things, it would block the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other sources, and prevent rules on the storage and disposal of coal ash and limit Clean Water Act rules.

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It would also prevent potential Interior Department rules to toughen environmental controls on mountaintop removal coal mining, and thwart other air emissions rules, including air toxics standards for coal-fired power plants.

Republicans say the bill is needed because power companies plan to close some coal-fired plants due to the EPA's air emissions rules, and because of additional EPA and Interior Department rules affecting coal mining. The GOP says that taken together, the Obama administration's regulations on the industry amount to a "war on coal."

The White House has threatened to veto the bill, arguing it would gut vital protections and presents a false choice between economic growth and public health safeguards. But the veto threat will not be an issue, as the Senate will not consider the bill before it leaves for the election.

Still, it provided Republicans an election-season messaging platform to argue that President Obama's environmental policies are bad for the economy.

During debate this week, Republicans reminded their colleagues that when Obama was running for office in 2008, he warned that he would seek to bankrupt the coal industry.

"It was the President, when he was a candidate, that said that his policies, if enacted, would cost coal jobs," Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said Thursday. "For nearly four years, we have seen evidence of that."

Hastings and other Republicans cited Obama's comments in 2008, when he said that people wanting to build a coal-fired power plant would still be able to do so under his administration, although doing this would "bankrupt them because they're going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that's being emitted."

As evidence that the "war on coal" is being waged, Republicans cited this week's announcement from mining giant Alpha Natural Resources that it would cut 1,200 jobs and idle eight mines in three states.

Democratic opponents of the bill argued that the coal industry is not being hurt by regulation, but instead by competition from other energy sources, notably low-cost and abundant natural-gas supplies.

"When the Republicans say there is a war on coal, in a market sense, yes, there is a war," Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said. "In the same sense that when we started carrying BlackBerrys, it was a war on the black rotary-dial phone; in the same sense that when we started using Macs and PCs, it was a war on typewriters; in the same sense that the horseless carriage was a war on horses; in the same sense that refrigerators were a war on salted meats; in the same sense that the telegraph was a war on carrier pigeons."

Before the final vote, the House approved two amendments that would require the government to publish the scientific data it uses as a basis for writing regulations. Another Republican amendment that was accepted would require the secretary of Transportation to estimate the number of jobs lost due to auto emission standards.

The House rejected several Democratic amendments, including one from Energy and Commerce ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) that would have struck language repealing the EPA's 2009 scientific finding that carbon pollution endangers public health. That finding provides the legal underpinning for EPA climate change regulations.

The lower chamber will return after the election for a lame-duck session.

—This story was updated at 12:35 p.m.

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