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Climate denier tapped to lead Interior Department mining agency withdraws nomination

J. Steven Gardner, a Kentucky mining consultant, has repeatedly questioned the existence of human-driven climate change.

Bulldozers operate atop mounds of coal at the CCI Energy Slones Branch Terminal June 3, 2014 in Shelbiana, Kentucky. CREDIT: Luke Sharrett/Getty Images
Bulldozers operate atop mounds of coal at the CCI Energy Slones Branch Terminal June 3, 2014 in Shelbiana, Kentucky. CREDIT: Luke Sharrett/Getty Images

The coal industry consultant nominated by President Donald Trump to lead the Interior Department’s mining agency has withdrawn his nomination after facing fierce backlash from green groups and environmental advocates, as well as a stalled confirmation process.

J. Steven Gardner announced Thursday that he was withdrawing his nomination to head the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), caving to pressure and citing ongoing resistance from the Office of Government Ethics (OGE).

“This decision was very difficult for me and comes after almost a year of back and forth with [OGE] over the conditions for an ethics agreement,” the Kentucky mining consultant said in a statement. “Now, I have reached the point that the uncertainty of when confirmation would actually take place, numerous reversals by OGE of conditions, unknown financial implications, and unknown final conditions have led me to make the decision to withdraw.”

Coal companies expressed early support for Gardner’s nomination in 2017, thanks largely to his extensive ties to fossil fuel industries, as well as his record quarreling with the Obama administration over regulations like the Stream Protection Rule.

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The Trump administration has since done away with that federal regulation, which sought to reign in coal mining operations in order to protect residents in vulnerable areas like Appalachia from documented health and environmental ramifications.

In addition to a lengthy history of support for the coal industry, Gardner is also a climate skeptic. He has historically questioned the role of humans in causing climate change, referring to mining as “accelerated erosion” and downplaying any correlation between burning coal and rising global temperatures.

Gardner is one of several Interior Department candidates whose nomination has been stalled by the efforts of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). In January the Florida lawmaker placed a hold on at least three department nominees over offshore drilling concerns, a leading issue for his low-lying coastal state.

OGE has also proven a hurdle for Gardner — the agency has been slow to provide the mining consultant with an ethics agreement, seemingly because of his deep ties to the industry he would be tasked with overseeing.

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“I have many friends in [OSMRE], state governments and knowledge of the program. That is why I am saddened by the necessity to make this decision,” Gardner’s statement read. “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.”

While Gardner’s withdrawal will likely be seen as a blow for the Trump administration, environmental advocacy groups cheered the news.

“Steven Gardner had no reason being nominated to direct [OSMRE] in the first place,” said Bill Price, the Sierra Club’s Appalachian organizing manager, in a statement. “He’s 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.”

Price asserted that the next nominee tapped to lead OSMRE should understand “the realities of what coal mining pollution does to surrounding communities” in the broader Appalachian region.

Gardner’s industry supporters expressed disappointment at the nominee’s withdrawal, including the Interstate Mining Compact Commission. There has been no indicator yet of who might be named to head OSMRE in Gardner’s wake.