Will Congress Act to Protect Coal Mining Communities?

, senior energy analyst | February 9, 2016, 7:25 pm EDT
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Today marks the release of the President’s Budget for Fiscal Year 2017. Included in the request to Congress is a package of policies that would go a long way toward helping struggling coal communities in Appalachia. And there’s even potential for action in Congress—a bill to implement one important policy was introduced last week.

The RECLAIM Act

Last week saw the introduction of the bipartisan RECLAIM Act, short for the “Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More Act of 2016” (H.R. 4456). Introduced by long-time Kentucky Representative Hal Rogers (R-KY-5), and cosponsored by Representatives Matt Cartwright (D-PA-17), Evan Jenkins (R-WV-3), Morgan Griffith (R-VA-9), and Donald Beyer (D-VA-8), the bill would unlock $1 billion over five years from the Abandoned Mine Land fund “for the purpose of promoting economic revitalization, diversification, and development in economically distressed communities through the reclamation and restoration of land and water resources adversely affected by coal mining.”

The Abandoned Mine Land (AML) Reclamation Program was established as part of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) of 1977 through the collection of fees from coal mining operations. The funds are released in the form of grants to states and tribes for cleaning up land and waters damaged from coal mining operations and also through mandatory distributions to fund retiree health and pension plans for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).

It’s important to note that the $1 billion represents existing funds—this is not a new tax. These are existing funds that have not yet been appropriated, and the bill speeds up the distribution of this money to address the urgent needs that communities are facing today. Importantly, the bill prioritizes projects that are “reasonably likely to create favorable conditions for the economic development of the project site or promote the general welfare through economic and community development of the area” and of communities that have been “adversely affected economically by a reduction in coal mining-related activity over the preceding 5 years.”

The need is great. A report from last summer found that $9.6 billion is required to remediate the remaining 6.2 million acres of lands and waters degraded by from coal mining activities.

The Wayne National Forest along with partners from the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Sunday Creek Restoration Project, and Hocking College planted 1,800 American Chestnut trees on a site that was once mined for coal in the late 1960's and early 1970's. Athens District Ranger DeVela Clark helps with the tree planting project. (Photo by Jared M. Dort / Wayne National Forest)

The Wayne National Forest along with partners from the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Sunday Creek Restoration Project, and Hocking College planted 1,800 American Chestnut trees on a site that was once mined for coal in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Athens District Ranger DeVela Clark helps with the tree planting project. (Photo by Jared M. Dort / Wayne National Forest)

President’s budget highlights urgency

President Obama’s FY17 budget proposal once again puts forward the Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization Plus (POWER+) Plan. The program offers four buckets of investments in coalfield communities:

  • $75 million for implementation of targeted economic and workforce development strategies, led by the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration;
  • Critical reforms to strengthen health care and pension plans that provide security to more than 100,000 retired coal miners and their families;
  • Accelerating the release of $1 billion of AML funds over five years, with a focus on economic development projects that help revitalize coal communities, similar to the proposal by Rep. Rogers; and
  • $2 billion in refundable investment tax credits to new and retrofitted power plants that deploy carbon capture and sequestration (CSS) technology.

The full POWER+ Plan can be found here.

The Path Ahead

It’s heartening to see Rep. Rogers leading the Congressional charge to release much-needed funding for Appalachian communities, and great to see the president pushing on this too. Given the partisan gridlock gripping Washington, it’s clear that they won’t get everything they proposed. But, given the groundswell of local support for investing in Appalachian communities, some of these ideas have a chance of moving forward.

Let’s keep up the pressure—get involved.

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