By Brian Sewell
After watching economic development efforts in Appalachia break ground, Washington wants to help the region rebuild. It’s what tools to use that the federal government can’t agree on.
The Obama administration’s strategy is to direct funds to workforce training and reemployment programs and increase the budgets of agencies focused on economic development. Congressional opponents of the president remain primarily concerned with rolling back environmental protections and blocking limits on carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants.
While Appalachian communities struggle to weather coal’s decline, lawmakers are sticking to their sides during this year’s congressional budget process.
When President Obama presented his proposed 2016 budget to Congress earlier this year, a sliver of the $4 trillion plan was carved out with Appalachia specifically in mind.
The POWER+ Plan, as it’s called by the White House, is designed to have bipartisan appeal. It supports efforts to reduce Appalachia’s reliance on coal alongside strategies to promote coal’s future viability as an energy source in the form of tax incentives for carbon capture technology.
The plan calls for $1 billion over the next five years to be allocated through the Abandoned Mine Lands Reclamation program to areas with high unemployment and where jobs to restore previously mined lands would help revitalize local economies. Communities in Appalachia would be first in line.
The counties that stand to benefit most from the POWER+ plan are some of the poorest in the United States. And lawmakers representing those counties in Congress, including Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), are positioned to rally other influential legislators around the plan.
But rather than receiving the POWER+ Plan with enthusiasm, many Appalachian lawmakers’ comments echoed past criticisms of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and claims of a war on coal.
“The administration has instituted sweeping regulations that have destroyed our economy’s very foundation without considering the real-world impacts, and funding alone won’t fix that,” a spokesperson for Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) told the Charleston Gazette. Earlier this year, Capito introduced legislation to prevent the EPA from regulating carbon pollution.
When asked about the plan, a spokesperson for first-term Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.) responded to the Gazette with a simple “No, Representative Mooney does not support the [POWER+] Plan.”
Mooney has introduced a bill to prevent the U.S. Department of the Interior from finalizing the Stream Protection Rule to reduce the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining. He has called stopping the rule his “top priority.”
In June, the House Appropriations Committee scaled back elements of the POWER+ Plan during negotiations over a bill to fund the EPA and Interior Department.
Instead of providing $200 million for the Abandoned Mine Lands program next year under the White House budget, committee members recommend $30 million be divvied up between Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Some agencies and programs that would see a bigger budget under the president’s plan lose existing funding under the House bill.
After the full House announced it would vote on the bill, the White House issued a veto threat, citing the House’s efforts to undermine carbon pollution limits and block the Stream Protection Rule, among other reasons.
But it was ultimately disagreement among Republicans over an amendment to prohibit the Confederate flag from being displayed at federal cemeteries that forced House Majority Leader John Boehner to abruptly cancel the vote.
“I actually think it is time for some adults in Congress to actually sit down and have a conversation about how to address this issue,” Boehner said at a press conference referring to the flag debate.
Some local leaders, however, believe Appalachia has waited long enough. On July 21, the City Council of Norton, Va., voted unanimously in favor of a resolution supporting the POWER+ Plan. The resolution calls on Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.), and Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) to champion the proposal in Congress.