Aid Package for Coal Country Goes Ignored by Congress

President Obama's $3 billion plan called 'cold comfort' by Republican leaders, who haven't allocated it to help coal-dependent communities.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) addresses reporters at the U.S. Capitol in Washington June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Editor's note: This article is part a series of stories by InsideClimate News reporters exploring the future of the coal industry, Coal's Long Goodbye: Dispatches From the War on Carbon.

A massive $3 billion package to help struggling coal communities transition to a new economy is sitting unappropriated in the Republican-led Congress. And lawmakers are saying little—at least publicly—about if and how they ever plan to support it.

As part of the budget proposal released in February, the White House rolled out the POWER+ plan to support towns and communities struggling to cope with the decline in coal production and use. The initiative provides coal country with an influx of cash to reclaim abandoned mines, provide job training to miners, reform health and pension funds and invest in carbon capture technology.

But in the four months since the White House announced the plan, leaders in Congress have not addressed it in any detail.

"What is unusual is that it seems senators and representatives from the area have not shown more interest," said Thom Kay, legislative associate for the Appalachian Voices, an environmental group based in North Carolina. "It's very tough to pass something that's pretty major through the budget by trying to do it last minute."

Long the backbone of Appalachia, coal has been in a steady decline since 2000, with the dwindling supplies of easy-to-access coal, a surge in natural gas production and a slew of environmental regulations.

In recent years, coal mines and coal-burning power plants have shuttered, leaving thousands out of work. Since 2008 coal employment in the country has decreased by about 12,000 jobs, a 13 percent decline. At the same time, poverty rates in parts of Appalachia are some of the highest in the country, leading the Appalachian Regional Commission, an economic development agency, to declare almost a tenth of all counties in the area distressed this year.

"Part of the problem we have is we had very little economic diversification. In coal communities it's been a mono economy of coal and not a lot else," said Chris Porter at Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, a non-profit based in Kentucky. "Having an influx of several billion dollars to really work to build a lot of diverse development strategies would be an enormous boost to take our region into the post coal economy."

In order to move the money from federal coffers to the states and counties, Congress must allocate the money from the federal budget through appropriations bills. Since the POWER+ proposal includes legislative reforms and fund allocations, executing the White House's plan will require a high level of coordination in Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Congressman Hal Rogers, who chairs the House appropriations committee, are perhaps best positioned to lead the effort in ensuring the proposal becomes law. Both McConnell and Rogers are from Kentucky and have constituents who desperately need relief. But their comments on the proposal are hardly a ringing endorsement. 

Soon after the release of the White House budget proposal, McConnell said it was "cold comfort" for the Obama administration to "suddenly propose easing the pain they've helped inflict on so many Kentucky coal families."

Rogers, too, blamed the administration for coal's decline. "The president is missing the point: for centuries, this country has run on coal. Businesses large and small rely on cheap, reliable energy to remain competitive, and drawn-out rulemaking processes and bureaucratic overreach create uncertainty that will raise energy costs and threaten American jobs," he said.

McConnell's and Rogers' press representatives emphasized the need for regulatory relief in addition to the monetary support.

Both legislators agreed that the proposal should be seriously considered. Since then, however, only a sliver of the POWER+ proposal has been included in the appropriations bills revealed so far, leaving constituents in the lurch.

A White House press officer said the POWER+ Plan is a "significant priority" of the White House.

Congress has "taken meaningful steps toward introducing some of these proposals," the spokesperson said, but "rather than provide overall budget levels that support these sorts of investments, the House Republicans have doubled down on sequestration." (Budget sequestration is a procedure to place a cap on the total federal budget, leading to spending cuts across government agencies.)

"This decision has had broad impacts, including on the POWER+ investments the administration has requested to help coal communities," the spokesperson said.

Walking a Tightrope

Over the last few years, the Republican Party has been in a political standoff with the Obama administration over the shape of the nation's larger energy policy. McConnell ran on an anti-EPA, pro-coal platform in the 2014 midterms, vowing to slash the environmental agency's budget and push back against the administration's policies aimed at decreasing fossil-fuel use.

The predominant rhetoric from McConnell and many coal-state legislators has been that the administration is waging a "war on coal." Political analysts say that for these politicians to do an about-face and support an Obama administration coal proposal would undermine their previous work. As a result, they're walking a tightrope.

"There are still legislators who would like to bring home pork in whatever form available," said Philip Wallach at the Brookings Institution. "At the same time, they don't want to undercut arguments against [the EPA's carbon pollution rules] and other administration policies by sort of saying you're allowed to wage war on coal but we'll take the redevelopment money."

Discussions about the Clean Power Plan—the administration's efforts to cut carbon emissions from existing power plants—and other environmental regulations have centered on the legality of the rules rather than how states can adapt to them. 

Wallach said that unless there is a big conversation shift around climate change and energy policy, he doesn't expect McConnell, Rogers or any of the other coal-state Republican leaders to come out in full support of the proposal. It would be an "unimaginable reversal," he said. 

Congress is also locked in battle over the total discretionary budget, which officially needs to be approved by the beginning of October, but often takes longer. And for many parts of the country and their representatives, aid to affected coal regions is not a high priority.

However, Wallach said, it is possible that the proposal could be quietly added to the appropriations bills later in the year without any major pronouncements.

The Redevelopment Plan

The POWER+ plan—which stands for Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization—has four main pillars:

  • Provides $1 billion to coal states with abandoned mine lands and polluted waters in need of remediation.

  • Reforms healthcare and pension plans for about 100,000 coal mine workers.

  • Allocates about $70 million to provide job training, create new employment opportunities, clean up contaminated sites and help reinvigorate coal economies through the Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Labor, Appalachian Regional Commission and other agencies.

  • Provides $2 billion in tax credits to utilities that invest in carbon capture technology.

The $1 billion in funds to reclaim abandoned mine lands provides the largest infusion of cash and has the most potential to boost the economy of coal communities. The plan proposes to dole out the $1 billion over five years to states with abandoned coal mines, and the funds are to be allocated by the Department of Interior's Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement.

The agency is required to collect taxes from the coal mining industry and then distribute the money to affected coal towns to help pay for the cleanup of mine lands under a 1977 law. Part of the funds would also be used to finance mine workers' healthcare benefits. 

Currently, the fund has accrued $2.5 billion in industry taxes, but the agency cannot allocate the money before 2023 without approval from Congress. The Obama administration's POWER+ plan would accelerate this process and move $1 billion from this fund to states ahead of schedule.

"We're very optimistic about the [POWER+] proposal," said Earl Gohl, the federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission. Gohl said his agency has "very strong relationships" with Congress and that he is confident they would be in a good position to help Appalachian communities next year. 

So far, two appropriation bills—submitted by subcommittees with jurisdiction over the Department of Interior and Department of Commerce—include funds to relieve distressed coal communities. One bill proposes to provide $30 million to three Appalachian states in the deepest distress—far less than the $3 billion package proposed by the White House—to help with community and economic development. The funds will go to Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Other Appalachian states such as Virginia and Tennessee, which are also facing economic hardships, will not receive any support through the bill.

Danielle Smoot, the communications director for Rogers' office, said it is waiting for specific language on the POWER+ proposal from the White House to include in future versions of the bill.

The White House spokesperson said it is working closely with Rogers and other members of Congress on the abandoned mine land portion of the POWER+ plan.

Bill Price, a Sierra Club organizer based in West Virginia, where coal mining jobs have declined by 13 percent in the last three years, said that it "is not a time to be playing with politics." Price said that with mines shutting down and the massive layoffs, people are very much afraid.

"We don't have time to get hung up in gridlock," he said. "We need this investment and we need it now."

Facebook Twitter RSS