Thursday, January 13, 2011

Could Mountaintop Removal Be Ending?

There's been very little good news on the environmental front, but one of the real positives is the decline of mountaintop removal. It has come under attack from several fronts due its massive environmental damage to one of America's most biological diverse regions and to the residents who live there.

Just today, the EPA denied a permit for the largest single mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history.

EPA officials this morning were alerting West Virginia’s congressional delegation to their action, and undoubtedly preparing for a huge backlash from the mining industry and its friends among coalfield political leaders.

In making its decision to veto the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ approval of the 2,300-acre mine proposed for the Blair area of Logan County, EPA noted that it reviewed more than 50,000 public comments and held a major public hearing in West Virginia. EPA officials said their agency is “acting under the law and using the best science available to protect water quality, wildlife and Appalachian communities who rely on clean waters for drinking, fishing and swimming.”

That backlash will no doubt come fast and hard.  I noted yesterday that the EPA is under attack from not only Republicans but many Democrats as well. We'll see a bipartisan attack here too. And maybe, under the next Republican president, we see a return to an EPA serving as a rubber stamp for the coal industry in the same way that Democratic West Virginia senators do today. But maybe government regulations isn't the most important factor here.

Regardless of the government, mountaintop removal operations cost a lot of money to finance. Coal companies need to get bank loans for those operations. Increasingly, banks are pulling out of financing those operations. It's rare that capitalist institutions can engineer positive social change. But with significant international pressure against mountaintop removal (much more so than domestic pressure), banks are deciding they don't want to be associated with such a destructive remaking of the planet. PNC Bank's November 2010 decision to pull out of financing mountaintop removal is especially important it is such a prominent institution in Appalachia.

Combined with international discomfort at investing into climate change exacerbating energy sources such as a coal, it may well be that we are in the last years of mountaintop removal. We can only hope that's true.