The Obama Idea to Save Coal Country

http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/03/the-obama-administration-idea-to-save-coal-country-214885

On February 2, in one of his first acts as Senate Majority Leader of the 115th Congress, Mitch McConnell ushered through the repeal of the Stream Protection Rule. The Obama-era regulation had taken eight years to write, emerging on the last day of the Obama administration, only to be snuffed out two weeks later. In the so-called War on Coal, this was the first time coal had punched back, drawing cheers from Washington to Appalachia. Dt“We cannot allow the legacy of the Obama administration to continue damaging our communities.” McConnell wrote in a self-congratulatory op-ed in the Lexington Herald-Leader. The Stream Protection Rule, and “a wave of environmental regulations” like it, according to a spokesperson for the American Public Power Association, have long been the source of Republican anger towards Obama-era energy policy, which conservatives contend is the reason that 40,000 coal miners have lost their jobs, 11,000 in Kentucky alone, since 2011. That was the year the EPA announced a stricter air standard that had the effect of forcing coal-fired power plants to shift to natural gas at a time when the price of gas had fallen to historic lows. “This tragedy in central Appalachia is a direct result of government action,” said former governor of Kentucky, Paul Patton, a Democrat, and currently the chancellor of the University of Pikeville in Pike County, which has lost 80 percent of its coal jobs over the past five years. “I can tell you that we’re paying the price for it.” But since that much-ballyhooed vote in early Feburary, this is how many new coal jobs have been created in Appalachia: Zero. And there are no signs there are any coming any time soon: Tyler White, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, couldn’t say how many jobs he thought the repeal of the Rule would create, “but I can tell you that it definitely will help stop the bleeding.” Even if every one of Obama’s environmental regulations—the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards; the Cross State Air Pollution Rule; the Coal Ash Rule; the Effluent Limitations Guidelines for wastewater discharge, and section 316(b) of the Clean Water Act —were all struck down tomorrow, the effect on jobs in Appalachia would still be negligible. That’s because global demand for coal is slowing, and coal from Wyoming costs a fraction of the coal from Appalachia. Even without the Stream Protection Rule, the Appalachian economy still needs to be remade.It turns out that one of the best ideas for how to rescue the region came from the same people who have been reviled for their role in burying the coal industry.As part of the 2016 budget, the Obama White House created something called the POWER Plus plan specifically to help Appalachian communities that were getting left behind because of the rapidly changing energy market. The acronym stands for Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization, and it proposed converting $1 billion from the Abandoned Mine Lands fund—a pot of money that had been growing since the Carter administration—into economic development grants to the states with the most abandoned mines. For Kentucky alone, that would mean $20 million a year for five years. The money would likely have gone to promote other businesses sectors like manufacturing and tourism and to retrain miners for new jobs like writing computer code. This potential windfall was met with disinterest, if not skepticism, in the Republican-controlled Congress.“When we included the proposal, no Republican member of Congress was willing to touch it at first,” said Jason Walsh, a senior policy advisor at the Domestic Policy Council in Obama’s White House who helped craft the plan. Then someone stepped forward. Representative Hal Rogers, a Republican whose district encompasses all of Appalachian Kentucky, proposed a bill of his own, piggybacking on the White House proposal. He called it the RECLAIM Act.“I refuse to let the Obama Administration off the hook for its role in systemically destabilizing and dismantling the Appalachian coal industry,” Rogers told POLITICO Magazine. “However, neither Democrats nor Republicans have a monopoly on good ideas, and I’ve always been willing to partner with anyone who wants to create opportunities in Southern and Eastern Kentucky.” If you’re wondering what happened to this exemplary act of bipartisanship, it was quashed by members of Rogers’s own party. How that happened is a story of political self-interest that challenges some of the standard narratives of the War on Coal. And it remains an open question whether this Congress will finally find a productive use for that $1 billion that is sitting largely untouched in the federal coffers.***The Obama administration understood well the disruption faced by the Appalachian economy due to changing energy markets. In October 2015, the Commerce Department began issuing $90 million in general funds (not the abandoned mines fund) to begin pilot projects for economic development in the states with the most abandoned mines. This was known as the POWER Initiative, a component of the larger POWER Plus plan. It was designed to be a catalyst for economic development, diversification and job training for communities to make a leap into a post-coal economy. It bore similarities to programs offered to workers who lost manufacturing work to NAFTA; grants made by the Defense Department to communities affected by military base closures and buyouts of tobacco farmers. But the $90 million wasn’t enough to overwhelm the Republicans’ attack on “Obama’s War on Coal”. Like most Congressional Republicans, Hal Rogers never had much good to say about President Obama. In June 2013, in just one of many of his press releases critical of the president’s energy policies, Rogers said: “President Obama’s disastrous climate change plan is the latest job-killing bomb to be dropped on Kentucky… This War on Coal is a war on middle-class Americans—it’s a war on jobs… In 2008, the President promised to bankrupt the coalfields and today he took another step toward his reckless, shameful goal.”And yet, despite the confrontational rhetoric, Rogers saw a good idea in the Obama administration’s POWER Plus plan. He introduced it as the RECLAIM Act in the House in February 2016—a stand-alone bill to convert $1 billion of the Abandoned Mine Lands into economic development grants for hard-hit Appalachian areas. The bill would eventually garner 26 cosponsors from both parties and every region of the country, including John Yarmuth, his liberal colleague from Louisville.“I don’t think it’s an unlikely partnership between Hal and myself,” Yarmuth told POLITICO Magazine. “This is legislation that will literally turn our environmental problems into economic opportunities.” Yarmuth cares about environmental issues in Appalachia because most of the water that flows out of Hal Rogers’s district ends up in the Ohio River, which forms the northern border of Yarmuth’s district. Who could be against such bipartisan legislating? Wyoming, apparently. The governor of Wyoming, Matt Mead, a Republican, wrote to his state’s Congressional delegation expressing his opposition to Rogers’s plan, calling it “detrimental to Wyoming’s coal industry and the national economy.” Mead argued that the RECLAIM Act would redistribute money from Wyoming mining operations “to non-reclamation economic development activities in states where federal energy policies decimated viable industries.”And while Rogers was then the chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, the key members of the Energy and Commerce committee were western Republicans in Mead’s orbit. The RECLAIM Act receded into legislative oblivion while the nation was consumed by the presidential election.On March 13, 2016, Hillary Clinton fell irretrievably down the mineshaft of the War on Coal when she was asked why poor white people should vote for her. Her response: “I’m the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into coal country. Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right?”In her next breath, Clinton said: “And we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on.” But that’s not what voters heard thanks to some smart editing by Republican ad-makers. Despite the fact that Hillary Clinton was the only candidate with a detailed plan to help coal communities—a $30 billion proposal that’s still on her campaign website—Trump beat Clinton by 30 points in Kentucky, a state her husband won twice. Maybe it just didn’t make political sense for a Republican to be seen holding hands with the party that had become an avowed enemy of the region, but Rogers remained silent as RECLAIM’s chances faded.A year later, Rogers’s staff is not holding grudges against their western counterparts, trying to smooth over their intra-party squabble as best they can: “No one in particular can or should be blamed,” said Danielle Smoot, spokesperson for Rogers. “It was simply a matter of functionality. The proper vehicle never presented itself in the waning days of the 114th Congress.”Although Rogers didn’t want to point any fingers, Yarmuth, his co-sponsor from Louisville, was quick to point to fellow Louisvillian Mitch McConnell: “What I find disappointing is that other members of the delegation, including the Senate Majority Leader, aren’t out in front of this bipartisan effort to help some of Kentucky’s most economically distressed communities.”***Water security has always been something of an inverse indicator of eastern Kentucky’s economic health. The more polluted the water, the better the mines were probably doing. That relationship still holds, but it’s the water that is doing better these days because there are fewer mines operating.Before the House voted to repeal the Stream Protection Rule in February, Yarmuth of Louisville spoke in opposition of the repeal and held up a jar of brown water that came from the well of a family from Pike County. Yarmuth invited his Republican colleagues to drink the water, and none did. There are small pockets of Pike County with bad water, but 95 percent of Pike County is on municipal water run by the Mountain Wafter District, which publishes water quality test results on its website; it’s good water. But next door in Martin County (population: 13,000), the municipal water supply is tenuous. Boil-water warnings are common, not because coal mining has polluted the city water but because the lack of mining has gutted the county’s tax base, leaving critical infrastructure at risk. Which is not to say that coal mining hasn’t destroyed drinking water in mountain communities. In Eolia, Kentucky (population: 1,400) at the base of Pine Mountain in Letcher County, the water is so loaded with methane gas it’s flammable when it comes out of the tap. “I don’t know anybody anymore whose water isn’t already ruined,” Jim Webb, who lives on Pine Mountain, told POLITICO Magazine. “We’ve gone from the best water in the country to having to buy it from the grocery store.” And then there’s Lynch and Benham, two former mining camps at the foot of Black Mountain at the top of Harlan County. They get their water from an underground reservoir left behind by US Steel; their water is purer when it goes into the legally required filtration system than when it comes out. A mining operation owned by Jim Justice, governor of West Virginia, had filed a permit to mine above Lynch and Benham, but some of the 1,250 residents challenged that permit with the help of the Kentucky Resources Council and the mining company withdrew its application. The short-lived Stream Protection Rule had nothing to do with it. “It may be good political rhetoric to say ‘War on Coal,’ but it’s a little more complicated than that,” said Benham resident Roy Silver in a telephone interview. “It’s just propaganda to say if you remove these regulations jobs will come flowing back.” The question is, where are they going to work in a post-coal Appalachia? The Obama administration’s POWER Initiative has funded a program Hal Rogers created called SOAR (Shaping Our Appalachian Region), which promotes increased broadband internet; teaches former miners to write computer code; and runs other pilot programs to create jobs in manufacturing, farming, tourism and other small businesses. The RECLAIM Act would add an additional $1 billion to the $90 million appropriated for the POWER Initiative. That’s only if it can get attention from the same people who let it die last year. “We fully expect to see RECLAIM 2.0 this Congress,” said Molly Block, spokesperson for the House Energy and Commerce Committee. But there is concern that discussing opening up debate on the RECLAIM Act could spark a broader reform of money from the Abandoned Mine Lands fund gets distributed and that’s not a debate Rogers and his co-sponsors had bargained for. Never mind the fact that Wyoming was all too happy to take $271 million a year from the Abandoned Mine Lands fund until 2020 for infrastructure projects through the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation, or FAST Act, which was signed into law by Obama in December 2015. On the Senate side, Mitch McConnell, who was silent last Congress on the specifics of the RECLAIM Act, laid out his six-point pro-coal plan in a January letter to then president-elect Donald Trump. He said he wanted to kill the Stream Protection Rule (done); end the government’s legal defense of the Clean Power Plan (any day now); stop enforcement of the EPA’s Carbon pollution standards for new power plants (a rule which has resulted in fewer coal-fired power plants burning less coal); protect the long-term health care benefits of retired coal miners (a by-product of an employer-based health care model, and a point upon which McConnell, Obama, and Hillary Clinton could agree) and invest in clean-coal technology. Number four on McConnell’s list was his intention to fund programs for “job training and education, transportation infrastructure, the reclamation of abandoned mine sites,” essentially what the RECLAIM Act proposes to do. His willingness to push on that item as hard as he has the gutting of environmental regulations matters. Twenty-one gigawatts of old coal-fired plants are scheduled for retirement in the next four years, according to the American Public Power Association, a fact that will not make Appalachian coal any more competitive in the marketplace than it is now. “In this political moment, more than ever, we need to show that Republicans and Democrats can work together to solve problems facing the country,” Jason Walsh, the former Obama White House policy advisor, told POLITICO Magazine. “ A good place to start would be to pass and sign into law the RECLAIM Act to help fulfill our nation’s moral commitment to support the coal miners and coal communities that sacrificed so much to keep the lights on in this country for generations.”

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