By Kate Mishkin
September 7, 2018 - The coal industry consultant tapped by the Trump administration to lead the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement is no longer seeking the position.
In a statement Thursday, J. Steven Gardner said he was withdrawing his name after a vetting process that’s taken almost a year.
He said he was “saddened by the necessity” to make the decision, but that he needs to move on.
“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,” he said.
Gardner, president and CEO of ESCI LLC, a Lexington, Kentucky-based consulting firm, was nominated to lead the OSM in October 2017. Housed in the Department of the Interior, the OSM is tasked with overseeing state mine reclamation programs and protecting health and the environment from the effects of surface coal mining.
Gardner, who holds a bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering and master’s degree in mining engineering from the University of Kentucky, has been critical of Obama-era policies and environmental regulations and has vocally supported mountaintop removal coal mining.
The nomination was controversial to some but praised by Kentucky lawmakers, the National Mining Association and others. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said at the time that Gardner would be an “asset to coal country.” The nomination was sent to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources for a vote.
By January, the committee still hadn’t voted on Gardner’s nomination, so the nomination was sent back to the president. According to Senate rules, a nomination that’s neither been confirmed nor rejected goes back to the president.
The committee never held a hearing because it didn’t receive the necessary ethics and financial disclosure paperwork from the Office of Government Ethics, said Nicole Daigle, a spokeswoman for the committee. In his statement, Gardner said he had gone back and forth with the Office of Government Ethics for more than a year “over the conditions for an Ethics Agreement.”
On Thursday, Gardner said the process had dragged on long enough and that he had withdrawn his name from consideration. The NMA and the Department of the Interior, both of which praised the nomination in 2017, declined to comment on the news Thursday.
Bill Price, organizing manager for the Sierra Club based in West Virginia, said the news is positive.
“We won’t be sad that he’s not going to be the head of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement,” Price said.
He said the Sierra Club doesn’t have a specific person in mind to lead the OSM, but has a few qualities on its wish list: someone independent of the coal industry, who’s “realistic about the decline of the coal industry” and can “prepare their agency for the future.”
“And any decision from the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement should be backed up by sound science,” he said.