House GOP subpoenas Interior over planned coal mining rules

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) subpoenaed the Interior Department Thursday over planned regulations aimed at curbing environmental damage from Appalachian coal mining.

The subpoena, which was authorized by Republicans on the committee late last month, requires Interior to provide all documents related to the planned regulations by noon on April 12.

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It’s the second time this week that Hastings has subpoenaed the Interior Department. The lawmaker issued a subpoena Tuesday for all documents related to a 2010 report that erroneously suggested that outside engineers had endorsed a deepwater drilling freeze following the BP oil spill.

House Republicans have taken aim at Interior’s plans to rework rules issued at the tail end of the George W. Bush administration that regulate the dumping of debris from mountaintop-removal coal mining into nearby waterways.

Republicans argue the Obama administration’s planned rules could cost jobs and burden the coal industry.

"The administration’s rewrite could have dramatic ramifications for American jobs and energy production with many coal mines being forced to close and thousands of miners put out of work," Hastings said in a statement.

But environmental groups and others say the Bush-era regulation, known as the Stream Buffer Zone Rule, does not adequately protect streams and other waterways from mountaintop-removal mining.

Mountaintop removal is a type of strip mining in which companies blow the tops off of Appalachian peaks to access the seams of coal beneath. The rock, soil and other debris is pushed into adjacent valleys, burying streams that form the headwaters of larger rivers below.

“The Obama Administration’s many attacks on coal as a low-cost American energy source are very clear, but they’ve refused to disclose information detailing their decisions and actions to rewrite this rule governing coal production,” Hastings said in a statement.

“After more than a year of patiently requesting cooperation and documents from the Department of the Interior, a subpoena is now needed to force them to live up to the President’s own transparency promises,” he said.

The Interior Department called the subpoena "inappropriate and premature" Thursday.

"A stream protection rule has not even been proposed yet, and it is generally considered inappropriate and premature for Congress to inquire into the details of an ongoing agency rulemaking activity," Interior spokesman Adam Fetcher said in a statement. "This premature oversight threatens the integrity of the Executive Branch’s ongoing deliberations on a rule that has not yet been made public."

Fetcher said Interior has cooperated with the committee's information requests during the year-long investigation, noting that the department has provided Republicans with thousands of pages of documents. The public will have "ample opportunity" to comment on the rule once it is proposed, he said.

"In the meantime, we will continue to work with the committee to respond to its requests in a manner that respects the ongoing nature of this rulemaking process," Fetcher added.