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Trump's pick to lead surface mining agency pulls out after 'year of uncertainty'

President Donald Trump's pick to lead the government agency responsible for protecting the public from the adverse effects of surface coal mining operations has withdrawn his name from consideration.

J. Steven Gardner, president and CEO of ECSI LLC, an engineering consulting firm in Kentucky, said in a Sept. 6 email that he has withdrawn his name from consideration to lead the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, or OSMRE, due to uncertainty around his confirmation, reversals on conditions provided by the Office of Government Ethics, unknown financial implications and other factors. Trump announced in October 2017 that he had picked Gardner to lead the agency.

Gardner has worked with the agency in various capacities for the 40 years the agency has been in existence, he said.

"That is why I am saddened by the necessity to make this decision," Gardner said. "It is time to move on to refocus on my business and family and recoup some of the opportunities lost from the last year of uncertainty."

He said the decision was "very difficult" and follows almost a year of back and forth with the Office of Government Ethics over the conditions of an ethics agreement.

"I feel I could have been of service and made a difference for the country, state governments served by OSM and the industry that is still so vital to the country," Gardner said.

The Sierra Club issued a statement about Gardner's withdrawal saying he should not have been nominated to direct the agency in the first place. In that statement, Bill Price, Sierra Club's organizing manager in Appalachia, said that Gardner was "a lifelong servant of the coal industry who consistently puts the profits of his bosses above the health and safety of coal workers and the enforcement of our clean air and water laws."

"His long-time ties to the coal industry as a consultant was a red flag for us from the very beginning," Price said on a phone call with S&P Global Market Intelligence. "It would have been very difficult for him to properly regulate an industry has such a tie to because of his consultancy. It's like letting a wolf guard the hen house.

Even without a director, OSMRE has backpedaled on efforts environmentalists have considered victories from the Obama administration. To industry applause, Trump signed a bill passed to undo the Stream Protection Rule shortly after taking office and an effort to study the health effects of mountaintop removal was recently halted by the administration.

In a joint statement that was released by the Interior in October 2017, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said he was confident Gardner's background in mining would lead to him easing up on coal companies after "eight years of executive overreach and finally allow Kentucky coal to compete again." Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in the same release that Gardner would help the Interior "achieve American energy dominance" and be an "unbelievable asset to coal country."

Gardner's firm was at the center of a controversy around the drafting of what would become known as the Stream Protection Rule when OSMRE terminated its contract with ECSI following the leak of OSMRE documents predicting thousands of coal jobs would be lost from the rule. In 2011, Gardner said OSMRE had asked his firm to change a baseline for the study to produce more favorable results, but ECSI refused. The matter was the subject of a 2013 investigation from the Interior's Office of Inspector General.

Gardner was also active in the Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration and as president-elect of that organization, he presented a talk on how to improve the coal sector's communication with the public.

"We don't give credit to what coal has done for society," Gardner said at 2015 coal sector conference. "That's a story that we need to tell. ... You can show them the connection between coal, mining and their day to day to life."

Gardner's nomination had not advanced to the U.S. Senate committee that would have voted on his confirmation. OSMRE is currently being led by acting director Glenda Owens.