OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Mine safety rule advances

Welcome back to OVERNIGHT ENERGY, E2’s daily roundup of the energy news
you need to know. Please send
tips and comments to Ben Geman, ben.geman@thehill.com This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
, and Andrew Restuccia,
arestuccia@thehill.com This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
.

State of Play: Mine safety proposal on the march

The Labor Department is getting closer to floating rules aimed at cracking down on mining companies that show a pattern of safety problems.

Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) sent a proposal to the White House Monday that would reform the “pattern of violations” program, which has been under the microscope since April’s deadly explosion of Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia.

The explosion killed 29 workers and was the worst U.S. mining accident in over 40 years. It prompted President Obama to call for tougher and more effective rules for pushing mines to correct repeat violations and taking action – including closing mines down – against those that don’t.

Reforms to the program were also part of wider mine safety legislation – which would have increased certain criminal penalties and beefed up whistleblower protections, among other measures – that sputtered this year. House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller’s (D-Calif.) bill stalled on the House floor earlier this month.

Rockefeller cheers rule’s progress

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) called advancement of the proposed rule “huge.”

Critics of the current MSHA program say it’s too easy for mine operators to avoid a “pattern of violations” status – and the tougher enforcement it can bring – by frequently challenging violations.

The rulemaking “makes it harder for them [mining companies] to just keep everything in litigation,” Rockefeller told E2 in the Capitol Tuesday. But he added that Congress still needs to act on wider mine safety legislation, calling it “tragic” that frequent filibusters have slowed down the Senate. “You want legislation so that a new administration doesn’t come in and change it,” said Rockefeller, who vowed to move ahead with legislation next year.

MSHA: Target companies who ‘thumb their noses’ at the law

 “The goal of the pattern of violations proposed rule is to compel operators to manage health and safety conditions so that the root causes of [significant and substantial] violations are found and fixed before they become a hazard to miners,” states a brief summary of the rule posted on the White House Office of Management and Budget’s website.

It notes that current rules hinder “the Agency’s use of pattern of violations to identify chronic violators who thumb their noses at the law by a continuing cycle of citation and abatement.” The White House reviews proposed rules before they’re issued for public comment.

NEWS BITES

Murkowski: EPA is blocking Alaskan oil drilling

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is accusing the Environmental Protection Agency of misusing its authority to block oil development in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve, a plot of land in the state owned by the federal government that has yet to see any oil-and-gas development.

Specifically, Murkowski is objecting to EPA’s designation of an Alaskan river as an “aquatic resource of national importance” (ARNI), potentially blocking the development of a proposed oil field.

“The application of EPA’s authority in these cases raises substantial questions regarding the process followed by the agency, especially in light of the nearly complete lack of public process, notice or justification for such a designation,” Murkowski said in a Dec. 20 letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. “The EPA cannot simply invoke ARNI status to block development that the agency objects to.” An EPA spokesman had no immediate comment on Murkowski’s criticism.

Incoming Science Committee chairman vows tough scrutiny

Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), the incoming chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, pledged Tuesday to look closely next year at a number of science-related programs that the House endorsed Tuesday.

The House passed a bill that reauthorizes the Energy Department’s Office of Science and the National Science Foundation. While Hall supported an earlier version of the bill, he objected to the Senate substitute amendment the House approved.

“Science and technology are the fundamental movers of our economy and if we want to remain globally competitive, this bill should be considered in smaller pieces and not on the last day of a lame duck congressional session,” Hall said Tuesday on the House floor.

“We did not see the actual text of the amendment before us until last Friday. We still do not have a complete CBO cost estimate. This is not the way the American people want us to do their business,” Hall said.

Poll: Public backs ‘fracking’ disclosure requirements

The Civil Society Institute, a critic of natural gas “fracking,” released a poll Tuesday that says three-quarters of Americans either strongly or somewhat support “tighter public disclosure requirements as well as studies of the health and environmental consequences of the chemicals used in natural gas drilling.” Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is a common drilling technique that has raised fears about water contamination.

House approves diesel engine retrofit bill

The House approved a bill Tuesday to provide $500 million to retrofit diesel engines so they emit fewer air pollutants. The bill now goes to the White House to be signed by President Obama.

Energy Department completes loan guarantee for big solar project

The Energy Department is providing a $1.45 billion loan guarantee for Abengoa Solar Inc.’s Solana project in Arizona – DOE calls it “the world’s largest parabolic trough concentrating solar plant.”

Here’s how they describe the project: “Located near Gila Bend, Arizona, the 250-megawatt (MW) project is the first large-scale solar plant in the United States capable of storing energy it generates. Solana will produce enough energy to serve 70,000 households and will avoid the emissions of 475,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year compared to a natural gas burning power plant.”

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

On Tuesday, E2 covered an explosive Senate report that alleges the decision to release convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi from a Scottish prison last year was motivated in part by a desire to preserve an oil exploration agreement between the Libyan government and BP.

Elsewhere, we noted that editors at the Associated Press say the BP oil spill was the year’s top news story; reported that several dozen House Democrats say more study is needed before Shell should be allowed to drill in Arctic waters; and tracked a bill to restrict shark finning that’s now headed for Obama’s desk. Elsewhere, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has abandoned efforts to pass a sweeping land conservation package in the lame duck session.

AROUND THE WEB

State of Alaska to sue feds over polar bear decision

“Alaska said Tuesday it would challenge an Obama administration decision to designate offshore sea ice and other areas as critical habitat for the polar bear, ramping up a policy fight over waters that are important to both wildlife and the oil industry,” the Wall Street Journal reports.

Report: Tough winters evidence of climate change

“Counter-intuitive but true, say scientists: a string of freezing European winters scattered over the last decade has been driven in large part by global warming,” AFP reports.

“The culprit, according to a new study, is the Arctic’s receding surface ice, which at current rates of decline could disappear entirely during summer months by century’s end. The mechanism uncovered triples the chances that future winters in Europe and north Asia will be similarly inclement, the study reports,” the piece adds.