This paper explores how policy structure, institutions, and political climate impact the ability of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) to ensure the reclamation of surface coal mines. We conduct a policy review that traces the impacts of the three parts of SMCRA; Reclamation Standards, Reclamation Bonding Requirements, and the Abandoned Mine Land fund. We examine the implications the act and its approach have for the mining industry and their ability to reclaim mining areas. We find that each of the three parts of SMCRA’s approach face substantial problems in their implementation. Though largely a positive force for internalizing the environmental costs of surface mining, those issues commonly elucidated in the public choice literature reduce the efficacy of the policy approach and call into question the act’s ability to ensure reclamation occurs. Both in the structure of the bonding requirements and in the regulatory structure created by the act, misaligned incentives sometimes hamper effective reclamation. Further, the funds created under SMCRA to reclaim and restore mined lands have often been directed towards projects that are politically expedient for politicians instead of those that would best serve the fund’s original reclamation purpose. After revealing these problems and putting them in the context of the public choice literature, we suggest updates to the current policy that would align reclamation incentives and better ensure that the reclamation of surface mines occurs. We emphasize the cooperative elements of SMCRA and suggest how other countries, especially those without major existing frameworks for handling reclamation, can emulate the successes of SMCRA while avoiding its implementations snags.
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