CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Coalfield communities struggling with mounting job losses as the nation’s energy markets restructure would receive hundreds of millions of dollars in new money to help create jobs and plan economic diversification programs, under the new budget proposed Monday by President Obama.
The administration is proposing $1 billion in new spending over the next five years to clean up abandoned strip mines and $2 million in tax credits aimed at spurring innovation on technology to capture carbon pollution from power plants. Obama’s proposal also includes $3.9 billion over 10 years to protect health and retirement benefits for retired coal miners, officials said.
Obama is also asking the Republican-controlled Congress to provide $56 million in new money for existing programs at the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Department of Labor and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to help laid-off workers and to assist coalfield communities with economic development.
Administration officials said that proposals are aimed specifically at addressing jobs losses and economic distress in coal-producing regions where a variety of factors — the boom in natural gas, the mining out of high-quality coal seams, competition from other coal basins and new environmental rules — have prompted a significant contraction in coal-mining jobs.
“We are in the midst of a pretty dramatic energy transition in this country that is producing a lot of very good things, from cleaner air to healthier communities to new jobs and new industries,” said Jason Walsh, a senior policy adviser at the White House. “At the same time, it is impacting workers and communities who have relied on the coal economy as a source of good jobs for a whole lot of years.
“Our point here is that while policymakers can disagree about the reasons why the coal industry is struggling, all Americans should be able to agree that these workers and communities, who are in some of the most economically distressed parts of the country, deserve help from the federal government,” Walsh said.
In a prepared statement, the White House said the effort is being called “Power Plus Plan,” and is meant to invest in workers and jobs, address important “legacy costs” in coal communities, and drive development of new technologies.
Among the budget increases for existing programs being proposed by the president for the 2016 budget year, which starts Oct. 1:
n An additional $20 million specifically for laid-off coal miners and power plant employees for the Labor Department’s $200 million program to provide re-employment services, job training and other support to help transition to jobs in other fields.
n An increase of $25 million in the Appalachian Regional Commission’s roughly $70 million annual budget, to be directed specifically to communities “most impacted by coal economic transition” to support “a range of economic development planning and implementation activities,” including facilitating access to capital and new markets, and addressing barriers related to adequate water, sewer and telecommunications infrastructure.
n A funding bump of $6 million for the Economic Development Administration within the Department of Commerce targeted to advancing and coordinating the government’s “place-based regional innovation efforts,” such as grants to assist economically distressed communities foster “an environment conducive to job creation and economic growth.”
In West Virginia, most political leaders have focused their efforts on legislation and litigation to oppose efforts by the Obama administration to reduce coal industry greenhouse gas pollution. A few local groups have been trying to convince state leaders that more work is needed to prepare for a decline in Southern West Virginia coal production that experts have been projected for many years as the high-quality coal seams are mined out.
“The president’s plan offers an incredible opportunity to take meaningful action to help regenerate coalfield areas where coal will inevitably decline,” said Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, a progressive group that has tried to encourage efforts to diversify the region’s economy.
Part of Obama’s proposal would address funding issues with the union coal miner health-care benefit program and growing concerns about the United Mine Workers union’s 1974 Pension Plan, which covers about 100,000 retired miners and their families but has been facing financial instability because of losses during the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009 and because of the dwindling number of mine operators paying into it.
The proposal, similar to one authored by Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., would ensure funding for health-care benefits for retired miners. It would also provide the ailing UMW pension fund with an infusion from the Labor Department’s Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., according to budget documents made public Monday afternoon.
“We appreciate the inclusion of funding in the Obama administration’s budget that would keep our government’s promise to retired coal miners, their spouses and their widows,” said UMW President Cecil Roberts.
Also, Obama is proposing an increase of $200 million per year in each of the next five years on mine cleanup spending from the federal Abandoned Mine Lands program within the Interior Department. The White House proposal would distribute the new money based on economic factors, such as the unemployment rate of coal mining regions, and the number of remaining abandoned mine sites, where reclamation is linked to “job-creating economic development strategies that would help revitalize impacted communities.”
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.