One Step Forward, One Step Back

by Matt Shudtz

December 16, 2008

Last week, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an outstanding series on Stephen Johnson’s (or, George Bush’s) EPA. Among many other insightful points, John Shiffman and John Sullivan note that for much of the last eight years EPA has shut environmentalists out of the regulatory process, prompting many national environmental organizations to rethink their advocacy strategies. Some have spent more time working directly with major corporations to accomplish pro-environment goals, instead of trying to leverage EPA’s regulatory powers.


A coalition of environmental advocates, including the Rainforest Action Network and NRDC, recently scored a victory by convincing Bank of America to rethink its investments in companies that rely predominantly on mountaintop removal mining to extract coal. For details and quotes from stakeholders, check out Ken Ward’s Charleston Gazette story here. This development provides an interesting study in contrasts.


On the one hand, we have environmental organizations and a major banking organization agreeing that blowing the tops off mountains and dumping the rubble into nearby valleys and streams is unacceptable.


On the other hand, we have EPA marching lock-step with coal companies that rely on just such destructive mining techniques. The day before Bank of America announced its new policy, EPA announced its support for a rule change that will eliminate a 20-year-old prohibition against mining activities that fill valleys or disturb the 100-foot buffer zone around mountain streams.


When Bank of America policy announced its policy, officials with the National Mining Association complained that the bank didn’t consult with them on its policy change. Lucky for them, they didn't have any trouble getting EPA’s attention. NMA was able to schedule a closed-door meeting with OMB before EPA decided on the rule change. (H/T to ProPublica)


In practice, the rule change may be more symbolic than anything. Federal regulators have for years granted mountaintop mining companies exemptions from the buffer zone protections. One EPA study found that from 1985 to 2001 – in large part due to the exemptions – mountaintop removal mining adversely impacted about 1,200 miles of U.S. streams, including complete burial of more than 700 miles. Much of the impact is concentrated in headwater streams, which provide some of the most important ecosystem services. (See Sierra Club’s Where Rivers Are Born).


And, for that matter, the impact of Bank of America’s policy change is hard to predict, too. The Massey Energy and International Coal Groups of the world that are going to lose funding from Bank of America might be able to simply turn to other sources of capital.


But at least someone is putting pressure on the coal companies to use less damaging techniques.

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Matthew Shudtz, J.D., is the Executive Director of the Center for Progressive Reform. He joined CPR in 2006 as policy analyst, after graduating law school with a certificate in environmental law.

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