The Senate approved a measure pushed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to overturn an Obama administration rule intended to protect waterways from the impacts of coal mining.
After the 54-45 vote, which picked up the support of four Democrats in addition to 50 Republicans, the bill to repeal the Stream Protection Rule now goes to President Donald Trump for his signature.
“The legislation we passed today will help stop this disastrous rule and bring relief to coal miners and their families,” McConnell said in a statement.
He added that they now have “a friend of coal in the White House.”
The Kentucky Republican has frequently blamed former President Barack Obama for coal's decline, and Trump made a campaign promise to put coal miners back to work.
However, even McConnell concedes that rolling back Obama’s regulations won’t be enough to bring back coal in eastern Kentucky, which has been hit by a variety of economic factors in recent years.
McConnell told McClatchy in an interview last month that the Republican Senate would be working with the Trump administration to “remove as many of the government impediments as possible and give the coal industry a chance to survive.”
McConnell and Trump are also critics of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which aims for a dramatic reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. Trump’s nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, was one of the first to sue the Obama administration to stop the plan. It is currently under review in federal court.
Kentucky coal has been hit by hard times, but regulation isn’t the only cause. An abundance of cheap natural gas produced by hydraulic fracturing has displaced coal at a number of the country’s power plants. Wind and solar energy are also becoming more competitive with coal.
Kentucky coal, especially the kind mined in the eastern part of the state, is more expensive to produce and transport than coal from Wyoming or Illinois.
Kentucky produced 42.5 million tons of coal in 2016, according to the state Energy and Environment Cabinet. That’s a 30 percent decline from 2015 and bumped Kentucky to fourth place among coal-producing states, behind Wyoming, West Virginia and Illinois.
As of Dec. 31, coal employed 6,371 workers, down 24 percent from a year earlier.
Kentucky Coal Association President Tyler White thanked McConnell and other Kentucky lawmakers for their efforts.
“This week our country’s leaders took the first step in rolling back unlawful regulation by unaccountable federal bureaucrats,” he said. “The Kentucky Coal Association will continue to advocate for a fair playing field that will allow coal to compete in the free market.”
According to federal data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, McConnell has received $845,350 in campaign contributions from coal industry employees and political action committees, more than any other member of Congress.
Kentucky’s junior senator, Rand Paul, has received $198,706 in coal industry contributions. He voted to overturn the Stream Protection Rule.