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House votes to rein in 'war on coal' after latest round of industry layoffs

 

House Democrats joined Republicans Friday in voting to restrain environmental regulators from hurting the coal industry, battling what mining-state lawmakers call a "war on coal" that just cost another 1,200 jobs. 

The 233-175 vote to approve the "Stop the War on Coal Act" marked the final vote in the chamber until mid-November. Nineteen Democrats joined the majority in voting for the bill. 

The proposals would bar the Environmental Protection Agency from restricting greenhouse gases, quash stricter fuel efficiency standards for cars and give states control over disposal of harmful coal byproducts. The vote coincides with a fresh campaign-trail effort by Mitt Romney to hammer President Obama over the impact the EPA's policies have had on the industry. It also comes after company Alpha Natural Resources announced earlier this week that it was eliminating 1,200 positions, closing eight coal mines across three states. The company cited a difficult market in which power plants are switching to abundant, less-expensive natural gas and "a regulatory environment that's aggressively aimed at constraining the use of coal." 

House Speaker John Boehner, in a statement Friday on the vote, blamed the "war on coal" for the job loss and said the House bill reins in the administration's most damaging new energy regulations and holds them accountable for the economic impact of several others." 

The legislation, though, is dead on arrival in the Democratic-led Senate, and Obama has already threatened a veto should it ever reach his desk. 

Republicans and conservative groups are working to saddle down-ballot Democrats with Obama's environmental policies, which are unpopular in energy-producing battleground states such as Virginia and Ohio. They argue that no source of jobs or affordable energy can be spared amid a still-weak economy, with unemployment at 8.1 percent, and reliance on oil from the tumultuous Middle East. 

New fuel economy standards that cut tailpipe emissions -- set for model years 2017-2025 -- would be gutted by the act. So would the EPA's ability to regulate gases blamed for global warming. A 2007 Supreme Court ruling cleared the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases under its authority to control air pollutants, but the legislation amends the Clean Air Act to preclude any taxes or regulations on greenhouse gases. 

Another provision would forbid the Interior Department from issuing any new rules that threaten mining jobs or U.S. coal production through the end of 2013. The package also would create a new agency to study how EPA rules harm jobs and energy prices. 

The measure also would give states broad control over disposal of coal ash, a waste product from power plants, and protection of water quality near mining operations. Also nixed would be EPA standards for mercury and air toxins and a "good neighbor" rule that protects states that are downwind from polluting power plants. 

Rep. Bill Johnson, who authored the act, challenged Obama to follow through on his State of the Union vow to support an all-of-the-above approach to American energy. 

"This is not about climate change," said Johnson, R-Ohio. "If it's a public health, public safety, national security issue, certainly common sense regulations are appropriate. Regulations that are based on fact and science -- not based on political rhetoric or an environmentalist agenda." 

The measure's passage dovetailed with a broadside against Obama in battleground Ohio, a coal-mining state. Republican Mitt Romney's campaign released a television ad Wednesday entitled "War on Coal," in which a coal worker declares that "Obama's ruining the coal industry." 

Energy issues have flared in several competitive House and Senate races this year, with Democrats seeking distance from Obama and their party. In West Virginia, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, facing re-election in November, has embraced the GOP's "war on coal" language and echoed their attacks on the EPA. Both candidates in North Dakota's tossup Senate race have criticized Obama for hampering energy production. 

Democrats voting with Republicans Friday to support the package included West Virginia Rep. Nick Rahall and Pennsylvania Reps. Jason Altmire and Mark Critz. 

The White House, warning that the bills wouldn't survive Obama's veto pen, said the legislation rolls back public health safeguards and measures that will save Americans money -- and not only on their gas bills. Obama officials pegged the annual savings from the health benefits of the rules at up to $90 billion. 

Debate over the measures exposed a growing rift between those in Congress who champion cheap energy regardless of the source and those whose constituencies demand they stand up for coal. Massachusetts Rep. Edward Markey, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said Republicans were breaching their own principles by favoring coal over natural gas, the price of which has plummeted in recent years. 

"The Republicans are saying there is a war on coal, but the only battle coal is losing is in the free market to natural gas," Markey said.
U.S. coal production is actually at its highest levels in two decades, says the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But American power plants are burning less of it, meaning more and more coal is being exported to other countries. Meanwhile, more efficient extraction methods have reduced the number of coal miners employed in the U.S. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.