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By Stephen Lee
July 21 — Coal-state Senate Republicans say they're open to, but skeptical about, current plans to revitalize struggling coal communities.
The leading proposal, which would dispense $1 billion to help distressed coal towns get back on their feet, has the support of both the Obama administration and Republicans and Democrats in the House. So far, however, no member of the Senate has stepped forward to introduce the bill in the upper chamber.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said she supports investment in her state, which ranks 47th in the nation in unemployment. But, in an interview with Bloomberg BNA, she also said she had questions about how the money would be deployed.
“The bureaucracy gets in the way a lot, and that's why I would be hesitant to just say, ‘Oh, I'm going to give you a billion dollars, and this is going to solve everything,' ” Capito said. “I think there's got to be a more targeted, specified way to go about this.”
Both President Barack Obama and House Republicans support the idea of spending $1 billion to revitalize struggling coal communities. The plans—laid out in Obama's Power+ Plan and Rep. Hal Rogers' (R-Ky.) RECLAIM Act (H.R. 4456)—would take money from the existing Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) fund and spread it around to states and tribes across the country.
That money would be used to hire laid-off miners to reclaim abandoned mines, turning them into projects that would spur further economic development, such as industrial parks, renewable energy sites and tourism destinations.
But Capito said she was suspicious that any such program wouldn't turn into a bureaucratic nightmare.
“I don't want to see a government program come in, have a community meeting, analyze the issue, and the administration feels better and walks out the door and nothing changes,” Capito said. “Because that's what happens a lot of times. I don't want a pat on the head and for someone to say, ‘Everything's going to be OK.' If you're serious about it, look at infrastructure development, look at education programs, look at broadband. These are things that we really need. We don't need another community meeting to tell us that we're having a rough time.”
But Thom Kay, legislative associate at Appalachian Voices, said he was confident that the Power+ Plan and RECLAIM Act won't create any new government programs.
Rather, he said, they build on the AML program already laid out in the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. New funding will create thousands of jobs in coal communities throughout the country, Kay told Bloomberg BNA.
He also said environmental groups must do a better job of communicating what the plans on the table will and won't do.
“That's a bit on us, to make sure that [Capito] is well-informed about the policy itself,” Kay said. “We'll have to keep pushing her on that to make sure that she sees, or at least understands, our perspective on why we see it as a really good opportunity for Appalachia. Her support means a lot to us, so we'll continue to try to get it. I don't know where we go without it.”
Another key coal-state Republican, Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.), is likely to accept federal money for economic revitalization, his spokesman, Max D'Onofrio, told Bloomberg BNA.
Yet Enzi remains troubled about the reasons the funding is needed, D'Onofrio said.
“It's kind of like someone burning your house down, then offering to pay to get you a motel room,” he said. “This administration is largely responsible for these lost jobs, but to keep their good-paying jobs is what people want. They want to keep their jobs, their homes, be able to keep their kids in the school they've been attending. They are hurt that their own government would work against them when all they were doing was providing inexpensive energy for America and a living for their own families. The administration doesn't want you to know, but it didn't have to be this way.”
For every coal mining job, an additional three-and-a-half jobs are created elsewhere in the economy, D'Onofrio said, including teachers, mechanics and store clerks.
People on both sides of the political divide say that low natural gas prices and business miscalculations by several large coal companies played key roles in the decline of the coal market. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some 36,700 coal jobs have been lost since 2011.
Kay said he thinks the RECLAIM Act will ultimately find a sponsor in the Senate, though no senators have stepped forward yet.
“A bunch of people are interested,” he said. “Some of them have said that, once a member decides this is going to be their issue, they'll take it and run with it. Up until then, they're not going to get too invested. And if we can't get it done by September, we'll push for the next Congress.”
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The RECLAIM Act (H.R. 4456) is available at https://www.congress.gov/114/bills/hr4456/BILLS-114hr4456ih.pdf .
Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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