CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Last week, on the day after President Obama was re-elected, a U.S. Forest Service official in Colorado signed off on plans by Arch Coal to expand its West Elk Mine into a roadless area of national forest backcountry.
The decision rejected an appeal by local citizens and national environmental groups, who believe the project violates laws meant to protect air quality, forestlands and wildlife, including lynx, black bear and elk.
"Smokey Bear has turned his back on Colorado's natural, roadless lands," said Ted Zukoski, an Earthjustice staff attorney who had tried to block the mine. "Instead, the Forest Service has literally paved the way for a coal mega-corporation to destroy real bear habitat."
That same day, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials in Washington, D.C., forwarded for final White House approval technical changes in a rule aimed at reducing mercury and other toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants.
EPA issuance of that rule has become a focal point for coal industry officials and coalfield politicians who opposed Obama's re-election on the grounds that his administration has carried out a deliberate effort to end all coal mining.
But the contrast between actions on the air pollution rule and the Colorado mining proposal may paint a more accurate picture of where the Obama administration is headed on coal issues in its second term.
Many experts and observers say Obama is likely to continue some initiatives to toughen regulation of coal, but that those moves will face a continued fight -- and likely litigation -- from industry, and be more moderate than the huge "war on coal" campaign would have the public believe.
"President Obama's re-election brings a huge opportunity for progress on public protections, but not a guarantee," said Rena Steinzor, a University of Maryland law professor and president of the Center for Progressive Reform, a left-leaning think tank.
Regulation of mountaintop removal is one area where Obama's plans are unclear.
The election's results mean EPA will continue to appeal court rulings that blocked tougher water quality guidance for Appalachian strip-mining and vetoed the largest mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history.
But EPA appears to have abandoned plans, floated early in Obama's first term, to rewrite the Clean Water Act "fill rule" to revert it to language that could severely limit the burial of streams beneath mining waste valley fills.
Environmentalists are also far from confident that the Obama EPA will pursue a tough path toward the first national standards for the handling and disposal of toxic coal ash from power plants, another rule that has received staunch opposition from Congress.
On coal-mine safety and health, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration still isn't revealing any timeline for finalizing its key rule to reduce exposure to dust that causes deadly black lung disease.