The decline of the coal industry is an election issue this year, especially since Hillary Clinton promised that, if elected president, her administration would “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”
Implicit in her statement was an admission that recent federal policies have already helped to regulate much of America’s coal fleet out of existence.
This shouldn’t be much of a surprise, since President Obama came into office with a well-expressed desire to cut carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants. In a 2008 interview he explained, “If somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can. It’s just that it will bankrupt them.”
True to his word, the president implemented a number of regulations and executive actions that have led to a continuing decline in coal employment since 2011. Not only did the president announce a moratorium on federal coal leases, but his “Stream Protection Rule” was written so broadly as to potentially eliminate half of existing U.S. coal mines. And on top of that comes a “Clean Power Plan” designed to eliminate 40 percent of America’s remaining coal fleet.
With the plight of coal communities suddenly factoring in a tight election, however, the Obama Administration made a curious announcement: it will ring up “nearly $28 million in investments to grow the economy in the nation’s coal-impacted communities.” The new package is intended to complement a previous $38.8 million package for coal communities announced in August.
According to Earl F. Gohl, federal Co-Chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, such investments would “enable Appalachia’s coal-impacted communities to continue their work developing innovative paths towards economic resilience.” Gohl optimistically calls Appalachia “America’s next great investment opportunity.”
The Obama Administration grant includes measures to: study the feasibility of converting coal to carbon fiber composites; boost tourism in southwest Virginia; train skilled workers for jobs in the drone industry; and, provide training and technical assistance for cybersecurity careers.
What these curious initiatives overlook is that America’s coal communities are not looking for a handout. What they appreciate is that coal has supplied robust, affordable power for generations. And while coal is 90 percent cleaner than it was 30 years ago, advanced technologies now promise to make coal even cleaner and safer.
Thus, it seems logical that, if President Obama wanted to help coal communities directly, while also boosting America’s technological prowess on the world stage, he could best spend taxpayer money on investments to improve the safety and efficiency of coal-fired power. Doing so would save coal country jobs while also boosting America’s high-tech research and production.
Unfortunately, the president is pasting a quick bandage on a bad wound. Maybe it will help his candidate of choice in time for the November 8 election. But it offers little in terms of long-term economic security for America’s coal states.