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Rural Blog: Despite waning demand for coal, some Obama policies could have helped revive the industry

Repealing the Obama administration’s Stream Protection Rule has yet to create any new coal jobs and likely won’t do much to revive the industry in the future, James Higdon, author and son of a Kentucky Republican state senator, writes for Politico Magazine.

“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.’”

Higdon writes, “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.”

While Republicans have blamed Obama for coal’s downfall, one of the best ideas to revive the industry was actually proposed by his administration, Higdon writes. “As part of the 2016 budget, the Obama White House created something called the POWER Plus plan,” which “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,” Higdon writes. Jason Walsh, a senior policy advisor at the Domestic Policy Council in Obama’s White House who helped craft the plan, told him, “When we included the proposal, no Republican member of Congress was willing to touch it at first.”

Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican who represents most of Eastern Kentucky, and who has been a strong critic of Obama, saw Obama’s plan as a good opportunity to revive coal communities and introduced it as the RECLAIM Act to the House in 2016—”a stand-alone bill to convert $1 billion of the Abandoned Mine Lands into economic development grants for hard-hit Appalachian areas,” Higdon writes.

It never went anywhere and now “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.”

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The Rural Blog is a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, from the IRJCI, based at the University of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is an extension program for rural journalists and news outlets. It takes no positions on issues and advocates only for strong news coverage, responsible commentary and things that make them possible, such as open-government laws. For more information see www.RuralJournalism.org.

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