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Energy and Interior Department Nominations - Wahlquist




CONFIRMATION STATEMENT FOR

BRENT WAHLQUIST

As nominee for the position of

DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF SURFACE MINING

RECLAMATION AND ENFORCEMENT

UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR

before the

COMMITTEE ON ENERGY AND NATURAL RESOURCES

of the

UNITED STATES SENATE 

JULY 12, 2007

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, it is a great honor to be appear before you today as the President's nominee as Director of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

I would also like to introduce my wife Diana, who is here with me today. We have been married for over 41 years, and have six children and 10 grandchildren scattered from Vermont to Louisiana to Utah.

I am the youngest of seven sons.  My family lived in an isolated farming community in Utah's Uintah Basin until we moved to a smaller farm near Idaho Falls, Idaho when I was five. From that family farm upbringing, I learned two important lessons relevant to the position for which I have been nominated.

First, I learned an appreciation of the natural order of things: planting and harvesting, the cycle of life, and mankind's dependency on natural systems. Along with that, I developed an intense curiosity about natural systems, which led to my eventual college degrees. In obtaining those degrees, I not only learned a great deal about biological systems, I also learned how to frame questions and seek objective answers to those questions.

Second, my childhood taught me the value of coal. For much of my childhood a coal burning kitchen range cooked our food, canned our harvest, baked our bread, and warmed the kitchen in winter. We also used that kitchen stove to heat the water with which we washed our dishes, our clothes, and ourselves. After we got an electric range when I was in the fourth grade, the coal burning space heater in the living room remained our sole source of heat for the house during those cold Idaho winters. In short, a full coal bin, with its sledge hammer to breakup large chunks of coal to a size that would fit in the fire boxes of the stoves, was an integral and essential part of daily life until I graduated from high school and left home for college.

Yet, while coal was absolutely essential to our daily life, I never really thought about the environmental or human cost of providing it. I just knew it came from mines. For 200 years coal fueled the development of this Nation's industrial strength, turned its iron into steel, helped enable victory in two world wars, provided heat for the homes of its citizens, and transported people and goods across the Nation. However, that mining also left the Nation with an extensive legacy of hazards and environmental degradation.

The way in which we use coal has changed over the years.  While its importance to daily life is not as readily apparent as it was when I was a child, today it remains just as essential to each and every American. More than half of the Nation's electricity comes from the burning of coal and our daily lives are bathed in the glow of electricity. The Department of Energy expects coal to remain the primary fuel for electricity generation for the next 20 years and forecasts an increase in coal production to match that demand. As ways are developed to capture carbon, coal's use to produce gas and liquid fuels may also increase.

I saw my first surface coal mine in 1972. It was a dragline operation near Braidwood, Illinois that was about to close. I was working for Westinghouse at the time, and we were evaluating the mine as a potential site for a nuclear power plant. In the course of doing so, we also evaluated the surrounding farmland and nearby areas that had been surface mined some 30 years before.

I have been involved in the environmental issues related to coal mining throughout the 35 years since studying that first mine. That experience has taken me to all types of coal mines and related facilities across all 26 states where coal is being mined.  I also have experience with the mines on tribal lands of the three Indian tribes with active coal mining operations.

My experience over the years has enabled me to look at the environmental and public safety issues related to coal mining from a wide range of perspectives.  Initially, it was as an expert consultant, primarily on Western surface mines, while I was with Westinghouse.  My work with Rocky Mountain Energy (a subsidiary of Union Pacific) was from the perspective of a large landowner seeking maximum return for its land and mineral resources.  Being responsible for obtaining permits and maintaining daily environmental compliance at active surface and underground mines and related facilities for an Appalachian coal company (Carbon fuel) brought an entirely different perspective.  I have also been in charge of regulatory programs responsible for permitting and inspecting mines at both the State and Federal level (the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources and the Federal programs in Washington and Tennessee and on Indian lands).  Also, in my Regional Director positions, I have been responsible for evaluating all 24 state programs with active coal production.  Finally, as Assistant Director, I was responsible for regulatory and abandoned mine lands (AML) policy formulation.

The impacts of coal mining, particularly the growth of surface mining in the post-war era, resulted in passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (the Act), which created the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM).  The Act was passed to address the hazards and degradation from past mining through an AML program.  The Act was also passed to create a Nationwide regulatory program to assure such hazards and degradation were not created by the future coal mining that would be needed to meet the Nation's continuing need for energy.    Thus, the OSM exists to ensure that America gets the coal it needs as an essential source of energy in a manner that protects both land and people while addressing problems from past mining.

In order to strike the proper balance between environmental protection and the Nation's need for coal, the OSM strives to maintain a stable regulatory environment consistent with the Act that is administered through state programs. That regulatory stability should enable all parties, including producers, regulators and citizens, to have a common understanding of applicable requirements and rights so that each can make informed decisions affecting their economic and personal interests with a minimum of controversy.

The OSM also promotes the development and use of the best technologies in coal mining and reclamation to effectively: a) prevent catastrophic mining related events impacting off-site public safety, property, or the natural environment, b) assure restoration of the land to productive long-term uses after mining, and c) minimize off-site environmental degradation; all while fostering the coal mining activity needed for the Nation's energy supply.

However, the OSM, cannot and does not do this alone. Of the almost 2400government employees directly involved on a daily basis in implementing the regulatory and restoration programs of the Act, less than 25% work for OSM. The rest are State and Tribal employees who permit and regulate 97% of the Nation's coal production and utilize 90% of the AML project funds. With the passage of the 2006 Amendments, which authorize Tribal regulatory primacy and increase the flow of AML funds to States and Tribes, those percentages are only going to go up.

Therefore, the major task for the OSM is to help States and Tribes succeed by providing States and Tribes the funding, regulatory and policy framework, assistance, training, and technical tools to have stable regulatory and AML programs of high quality.  If confirmed, I will certainly work toward that end as Director. 

Over the past several years, the OSM has made substantial progress in achieving regulatory stability. Increased cooperation with States through such initiatives as our training programs, providing technical tools, and promoting technology transfer has largely eliminated the highly contentious relationship of two decades ago. Such efforts have proven highly cost effective in lifting the quality of State programs and promoting stability.

However, in certain areas, such as mountaintop mining, there still remains considerable uncertainty and controversy that makes it difficult for coal companies to make informed business decisions about future mining operations, for citizens to realize the protections afforded by the Act, and for regulatory authorities to apply mining and reclamation requirements consistently.  If confirmed, I will work with this committee and affected parties toward increased regulatory stability in Appalachia. 

Finally, I would like to highlight one recent success.  In 2003, as I toured surface coal mines in Appalachia in my new position as Regional Director, I was struck by the forest fragmentation that was occurring and by the quality research of several academic experts demonstrating that it did not need to be that way.  In December 2003, in cooperation with each of the States in the region, we launched the Appalachian Region Reforestation Initiative (ARRI).  That effort was targeted at overcoming the technical, regulatory and cultural barriers to getting more trees planted and increasing the survival and growth rates of planted trees.  This initiative has gained wide ranging support from all sectors.  It has also made a very practical difference.  While some trees were being planted in previous years, by over 9 million were planted in 2005, and over 14 million in 2006.  Further, these plantings have a much higher likelihood of survival and vigorous growth. Numerous tree planting events involving school children have been held in the last three years where thousands of trees were planted.  An academic team has been formed that includes 23 researchers from 10 universities and the U.S. Forest Service.   That team is now developing "reclamation advisories" written at the high school science level for use by operators and regulators right down to the inspector and dozer operator in how to promote tree survival and growth and jump-start natural succession.   

Efforts such as this highlight the importance of training, promoting scientific understanding, and encouraging the development and use of emerging technologies.  If confirmed, I will continue to emphasis the importance of building bridges with academic institutions across the coal fields and will promote technical training and technology transfer among the State and Tribal regulatory and AML programs. 

Again, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today and express my express my deep concern and interest in the OSM and its mission.