James Crisp, Associated Press
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour talks with a reporter in the lobby of the Hyatt after speaking to a group of coal operators in Lexington, Ky., on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011.
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Potential Republican presidential candidate Haley Barbour criticized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday for being "out of hand" in its approach to regulating coal.
The Mississippi governor spoke privately to a group of Kentucky coal executives meeting in Lexington, but told The Associated Press afterward that the EPA under the Obama administration is imposing strict environmental standards that mining companies can't possibly meet.
"It's a deliberate way to try to halt coal mining, which would be catastrophic for Appalachian America," he said.
Barbour was the first candidate pondering a run in next year's presidential race to reach out to Kentucky's coal operators who have the inclination and the financial resources to help bankroll politicians friendly to their industry.
Most early presidential candidates bypass Kentucky because of its late primary. Nominees for each party usually are all but decided by the time the state's voters go to the polls in May.
But with corporate spending limits essentially lifted by the U.S. Supreme Court last year, mining companies would be free to spend unlimited amounts of money in the next presidential election. That could turn Kentucky's deep-pocketed coal operators important players in presidential politics.
Kentucky GOP Chairman Steve Robertson said earlier this week that the Supreme Court ruling has changed the political playing field, raising the profile of coal-rich states that previously have been overlooked by presidential candidates.
Barbour said Thursday he won't make a decision about running for president until April.
"But it is something I am looking at, and I am working to make sure I make a sound decision," he told the AP.
Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett called Barbour "clearly a pro-energy" politician.
"He has an excellent working knowledge of how coal production is directly tied to our economy and electricity production," Bissett said. "He also has keen insight on how the current administration in Washington has no energy policy or concern about how we're going to power this country."
Barbour scolded the EPA for denying permits to coal mines in Appalachia, and was especially critical of the agency's standard for "electrical conductivity" in water that drains from mine sites. Conductivity shows the amount of disolved materials in water. Barbour complained that the conductivity levels allowed by the EPA are so low that even treated tap water can't meet them.
"The EPA is totally out of hand," he said.
Coal, Barbour said, should be a key part of the nation's energy policy.
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"America's energy policy should be more American energy," he said. "Obama's energy policy is to drive up the cost of energy so Americans will use less of it. That's because they want to reduce pollution and make the currently very expensive, uneconomic alternatives more cost competitive. That's not energy policy. That's environmental policy."
The state of Kentucky and the state's coal mining industry group sued the EPA last fall challenging interim guidelines used in deciding whether to allow new mines to open.
The EPA has blocked numerous mining permits based on the interim guidelines. The state and the industry are asking a federal judge to stop the EPA from blocking any additional permits until it holds public hearings on new permit rules.