Photo Credit: Public Domain
Published May 12, 2021
The Tennessee Conservative Staff –
Tennessee legislators passed a bill that will allow the state to regain control of a coal industry that has been seriously lacking in production in recent years. Initial agreements showed that oversight of the industry would come at no cost to the state, but the new bill will leave Tennessee paying nearly $1 million per year.
In the second, third, and fourth quarters of last year, Tennessee coal mines did not produce any coal at all. This leaves Tennessee as the second-lowest coal-producing state. Despite that, legislators continued with the bill, even though taxpayers will be forced to cover the expenses.
Once the bill is signed by Governor Lee, the federal government will have to approve the move. After that, control of the coal mining industry would be transferred to state regulators. Tennessee lost those regulatory privileges in the 1980s because of poor management practices.
In the first quarter of 2020, Tennessee mines produced only 92,000 tons of coal. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, nothing was produced after that. This is a 79% decrease from 2019. This marks a notable decline from the 3.3 million tons that were mined in 2001.
Neighboring state Kentucky also experienced a slow year in 2020, but they were still able to produce 24.1 million tons of coal.
Representative Dennis Powers of Jacksboro told fellow legislators that the decline in production was due to the removal of local control, even though the state has not had that control in over 30 years.
“Kentucky should never be beating us in coal mining, at football, or at basketball. We should always be No. 1,” Power said.
Representative Chris Todd of Jackson discussed the loss of mining jobs across the state because the state no longer had control. Powers estimates that 25 to 30 people work in the Tennessee coal mines.
Tennessee Democrats feel that number is practically irrelevant.
“I just think that right now we have a system that is working and why we would change a law for an industry that employs 25 people is a little bizarre,” said Representative Bob Freeman of Nashville.
Legislators passed the Primacy and Reclamation Act of Tennessee in 2018. This act provides direction for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to create its own program for regulating surface mining. The U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement has been in charge of Tennessee’s mines ever since control was removed from the state.
This new legislation is an update to that 2018 law. It still requires federal approval for it to move on.
According to Eric Ward, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, giving control back to the state will guarantee oversight of the mining industry that is fair, effective, responsive, and efficient.
Senator Ken Yager of Kingston was the sponsor of the 2018 bill and co-sponsor of this year’s updated legislation. He has previously referenced the federal government’s tedious permit process as one of the reasons he wants to see control back in the hands of the state. The current process can make it take years to get a mine open.
One major difference in the 2018 law and the new bill is that the 2018 law did not involve any spending. Originally, Yager consulted with the state Fiscal Review Committee and determined that there would not be any cost to switch. He is quoted as saying that “not one cent” of general fund money would go towards any startup or operational fees.
Current lawmakers estimate that the plan will place a $871,000 expense on taxpayers every year.
TDEC Commissioner David Salyers included this figure in a list of new budget requests that he presented to a Senate committee on March 10.
“Even when drawing down all the federal money made available for a state operated program, we’re still going to need $871,000 in recurring funds to run this program,” Salyers said.
The bill was thought to have died for the year, but last-minute changes led to its approval on May 3.