One of the more bizarre aspects of the debate over coal is that while Appalachia's representatives in Washington use coal miners and their communities as a political bludgeon, it's President Obama who's actually trying to help them. One small Kentucky town seems to have noticed.
Coal mining communities are getting bupkis from their leaders
Most analysts now agree that the devastation wrought on Appalachian coal in the past several years has been about cheap natural gas, coal seam depletion, competition from cheaper and cleaner Western coal, and poorly run, debt-crippled companies. Obama's purported "war on coal" has at most pushed things along at the margins.
Yet suffering coal miners are getting nothing from their self-proclaimed champions. Coal companies are going bankrupt right and left, struggling to renege on their pension promises to those who have given their lives to mines. Legislators from Appalachian coal states, led by Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, have offered nothing but fruitless opposition. They opposed the 2009 cap-and-trade bill, which contained billions in subsidies for coal technology, knowing that the alternative would be EPA carbon regulations. They opposed those EPA regulations and are counseling states to refuse to implement them, knowing that the alternative is a federal implementation plan. They take money from coal barons and pretend that the US coal industry can be revived, which means they don't offer struggling mining communities what they most need: a clear-eyed plan for the inevitable transition away from coal.
Obama has a plan to help coal communities
Meanwhile, Obama has proposed just such a plan, in his fiscal year 2016 budget. It's called the POWER+ Plan. You can read all the details here; here's a summary from the Charleston Gazette of what the plan would do:
• Pump $200 million per year for five years to clean up abandoned strip mines, which could create multitudes of jobs for laid-off miners.
• Add $5 million for "brownfields" work cleaning up pollution at coal-fired power plants.
• Give $20 million to retrain ex-miners and help them find new jobs.
• Grant $25 million to the Appalachian Regional Commission for efforts to create new businesses and upgrade water, sewer and telecommunications infrastructure.
• Add $6 million more for "place-based regional innovation efforts" to spur jobs in distressed coal communities.
• Award $3.9 billion over a decade to shore up pensions and medical care of retired miners.
Sounds like a good start. And it looks like at least some Appalachians have taken notice.
One Kentucky coal town says yes, please, they'd like the help
Earlier this week, the little town of Whitesburg, Kentucky, passed a resolution in support of the POWER+ Plan. Whitesburg is home to just over 2,000 people, but it happens to be in the district of Rep. Hal Rogers (R), the chair of the House Appropriations Committee. And it happens to be in the state of the aforementioned Mitch McConnell.
The resolution is worth quoting:
Whereas the Appalachian region of Kentucky is experiencing a dramatic economic transition with the decline of the coal industry, and Whitesburg is experiencing economic distress as coal jobs continue to decline;
Whereas we believe that the transition to a future economy should be one that celebrates our culture; invests in communities; generates good, stable and meaningful jobs; is just and equitable; and protects and restores our land and water;
Whereas the POWER+ Plan [many benefits of the plan]
Whereas the POWER+ Plan has been proposed by the White House and currently sits before Congress;
Therefore, let it be resolved that the City of Whitesburg supports passage of the POWER+ Plan by the U.S. Congress and encourages Congressman Hal Rogers to see passage of this Plan through the federal legislative process.
Rogers and McConnell could get the POWER+ Plan through Congress if they wanted to. Will they listen to the people of Whitesburg, to all the suffering coal communities that desperately need help, or will they oppose the plan out of partisan spite?
Ha, just kidding. Of course it's that second thing.