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Essential Energy Insights - June 11, 2020

MSHA's efforts to blur mining divisions get a nod in president's budget

President Donald Trump's fiscal-year 2020 budget request includes funds to further an effort to consolidate coal and metal/nonmetal divisions of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

MSHA has been "blurring the lines" between two divisions of the agency that have historically been treated separately. Under MSHA Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health David Zatezalo, the agency is cross-training inspectors to handle both coal and metal/nonmetal mines. A document providing a broad overview of the administration's budget request includes a proposal to consolidate the budget activity of the two divisions.

"The new enforcement structure would provide the flexibility to address industry changes and maximize the efficient use of MSHA's resources," says the March 11 document.

While limited crossover of the two divisions has been used successfully in the past, Joseph Main, the assistant secretary for labor for mine safety and health under President Barack Obama, said he would not be in favor of a broader merger of the two divisions.

"Congress got it right [when] they created legislation for mine safety to have a separate coal and metal/nonmetal process in place," Main said in a Feb. 5 interview. "That was the right thing to do, to have administrative separations between coal and metal/nonmetal, and it should be continued."

However, Zatezalo said there have been few issues raised by early efforts at combining the responsibilities of the two agency divisions. Tim Watkins, a former deputy administrator for coal who is now the administrator of mine safety and health enforcement over both the coal and metal/nonmetal mine divisions, said at a January industry gathering in West Virginia that the agency is starting small by trying out the program at smaller operations. Going forward, he added, the agency hopes to begin hiring inspectors with the idea that they could inspect both coal and metal/nonmetal mines.

A U.S. Department of Labor spokesperson confirmed the fiscal year 2020 budget reflects a budgetary consolidation of coal and metal/nonmetal enforcement activities for the first time. This demonstrates continued implementation of the "One MSHA enforcement initiative" in which inspectors are trained in enforcement activities of both divisions, the spokesperson said.

Trump's budget request, which also includes large budget cuts for the U.S. Department of Energy, is likely to face pushback from the U.S Congress, which ultimately determines the federal government's budget.