On site at the largest underground coal mine in North America, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt called for greater cooperation between America’s fossil fuel industry and environmental regulators.

Pruitt was at Consol Energy’s Harvey Mine for what his agency is calling a “Back to Basics” tour to explain the new shift to a more industry-friendly agency. “The war on coal is done,” he said to hearty applause from the crowd of around a hundred miners — some of whom had come above-ground in the middle of their shifts to see the administrator.

LISTEN: Scott Pruitt Talks to Greene County Miners

Pruitt was referring to an executive order President Trump signed last month telling the EPA to review or roll back several Obama-era regulations on coal. The biggest of these was the Clean Power Plan, which sought to reduce carbon emissions from power generation. That regulation would have hurt the coal industry, the power sector’s largest source of carbon dioxide. Coal is responsible for around 77 percent of the electric sector’s CO2 emissions, or about 20 percent of all U.S. carbon emissions, according to EPA data. 

Pruitt said that under his watch, the EPA would be friendly to fossil fuel producing companies because he thinks they, too, want to keep the environment clean.

“The past administration said that we had to choose between environment and job growth. This administration says the opposite,” Pruitt said to the crowd. “We can achieve both and we will. And we’re here to join you in that regard. We’re going to improve the environment in this country, protect our water, protect our air, but at the same time do it the American way — grow jobs and show the rest of the world that we can achieve it. The regulatory assault is over.”

Last year, Pruitt’s host — Consol Energy’s Harvey Mine — agreed to pay a $3 million civil penalty and improve its water management and monitoring activities for violations of the Clean Water Act under a consent agreement with the EPA. The EPA alleged that the mine had violated its pollution limits 188 times over a nine-year period.

Photo: Reid Frazier

Pruitt’s visit buoyed the spirits of Craig Williams, a miner from Jefferson Hills, Pennsylvania. “It puts us on the map, makes us feel like we’re not forgotten about,” Williams said. Photo: Reid Frazier

Pruitt criticized the EPA’s Obama-era leaders for their culpability in the Gold King mine release, which polluted a Colorado river; for failing to prevent Flint, Michigan’s lead crisisand the existence of more than a thousand Superfund sites across the U.S.

He also criticized the Obama EPA’s record on air quality. “What did they achieve on environment? Almost 140 million people in this country live in noncompliance right now with respect to air quality,” he said. Notably, as Oklahoma’s Attorney General, Pruitt sued the EPA several times to block clean air rules.

After a five-minute talk to the miners, Pruitt was presented a white hard hat, which he held up in the air (but did not don). He then left the room.  But Pruitt’s quick visit left a good impression with the mining industry.

“[Pruitt’s] appearance should give confidence to coal communities across the country that the days when our government stands in opposition to them are over,” said National Mining Association CEO Hal Quinn in a statement.  

Pennsylvania environmental groups had a different take.

“Pruitt is undermining our last chance to avoid climate disruption,” said Larry Schweiger, CEO of PennFuture. “We need to push back on this reckless and cynical action that will not even help coal because cheap gas is killing coal in the energy market — and the smart miners know it.”

“[Pruitt’s] appearance should give confidence to coal communities across the country that the days when our government stands in opposition to them are over.”

Pruitt recently drew fire for saying he didn’t agree with the scientific consensus that carbon dioxide is “a primary contributor” to climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a consortium of thousands of climate scientists, called CO2 “the largest contribution” to global warming.

The Harvey Mine is one of several large mines in Greene County, the top coal-producing county east of the Mississippi. But the coal industry has slipped here: The number of coal mining jobs fell from 3,000 in 2011 to 1,900 in late 2016, according to the latest figures available from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.

That follows a national trend, as cheap natural gas has begun to surpass coal as the nation’s leading fuel source for electricity generation. Consol Energy, the Harvey Mine’s parent company, has been moving toward selling off coal assets and focusing more on its natural gas business.

But the miners who saw Pruitt speak Thursday believed that despite the industry’s troubles, their prospects would be helped by a “pro-growth” administration. “It gives us a future. People want to have a future,” said Mark Bettinazzi, a coal miner from Moundsville, West Virginia, who’s worked in the industry for 40 years. “Backing off the regulations and creating jobs — that’s what the people want. Most people want to make a living and not rely on the government.”

Pruitt’s visit buoyed the spirits of Craig Williams, a miner from Jefferson Hills, Pennsylvania. “It puts us on the map, makes us feel like we’re not forgotten about,” said Williams, a production foreman. Williams said the Harvey Mine had been shut down for about six months in early 2016, before restarting. That caused Williams, a father of two, stress about the future of his job. “There were a lot of questions at the time as to whether we were going to have a job, a few months down the road.”

Miner Jonathan Lacey, of Morgantown, West Virginia, said he thought Pruitt’s approach to easing up on regulations would be good not just for the coal industry, but for the country. “We’re all concerned about the environment,” Lacey said. “But we do have a natural resource in abundance to produce electricity we need in this country.”