President Donald Trump is nominating a Lexington engineer to fill the top spot at the federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement.
The Department of the Interior announced Thursday that Steven Gardner of Lexington consulting firm ECSI has been tapped for the role. Gardner has more than four decades of experience working with and advocating for the mining industry.
In 2011, he testified before the House Committee on Natural Resources on the Obama administration’s Stream Protection Rule, which tightened regulations on surface coal mining.
Gardner and others raised questions about the justification used for the regulation, saying the Office of Surface Mining had prompted his company to change key calculations to lessen the perceived effect of the rule on jobs and coal production.
The rule went on to be finalized in 2016 before it was overturned by Trump this year. Throughout, Gardner remained a vocal critic. He has also continued to use the ‘war on coal’ rhetoric, blaming regulations on Kentucky’s loss of mining jobs, though in various pieces Gardner has also acknowledged the role that other forces — like market factors and mechanization — have played.
In the news release announcing his nomination, Gardner’s expertise was praised by both Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke — who will be Gardner’s boss if he’s confirmed — also said Gardner is a good pick for the job.
“When confirmed, Steve will be an unbelievable asset to coal country and the entire team at the Department of the Interior,” Zinke said. “Steve is highly regarded in the mining industry for his extensive experience and insight. Steve will help Interior take the proper steps forward to ensure American Energy dominance is achieved, while also being a responsible steward of American lands. We very much look forward to a quick confirmation process.”
Environmental groups weren’t so complimentary. In a press release sent out by non-profit Appalachian Voices, Davie Ransdell of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth wrote:
“Steve Gardner is certainly a well-established mining engineer. Unfortunately, his company and his own personal bias are coal-industry centric. Because of industry downturns, he has reluctantly diversified but maintains a focus on promoting coal mining despite the fact that coal is becoming less and less competitive. How can someone with his focus on defending the industry at all costs be the right choice for the federal agency in charge of overseeing that industry.”
Ransdell is also a former supervisor at the Kentucky Division of Mine Permits.
Reached in his office in Lexington Thursday, Gardner declined a request for comment.
This post has been updated.