Front Porch Blog

A way forward for Appalachia

Rep. Raul Grijalva (l) is a strong supporter of just transition efforts. Rep. Deb Haaland is nominated for Secretary of the Interior and would be the first Native American in the role.

These are unprecedented times. I’ve learned over the past 10 months that I don’t particularly like unprecedented times. You can have them. They’re not for me.

Our country is in a hole right now. But amidst the crises and chaos, we have in front of us the potential for massive change. America has the tools and opportunity to climb out of that hole and arrive at a better place than where we started. We have the people, the will, the ideas, and, make no mistake, we have the wealth, to be stronger than we were before.

The top, immediate priorities for the U.S. Congress and the Biden administration are the health crisis and economic recovery. In the next six months, they are also going to take major actions to tackle climate change, build a better national infrastructure, and stimulate the economy.

Opportunities for multi-trillion dollar investments in infrastructure and economic development are incredibly rare in D.C., and with worsening climate impacts, the opportunity couldn’t come soon enough. At Appalachian Voices, we are determined to make the most of this window of opportunity.

We expect the Biden administration to consider climate change in every action it takes, to repeal the most damaging environmental policies of the past four years, and to tackle pervasive poverty and inequities. We are specifically focused on advancing energy and environmental justice in our region through policies and laws that the Biden administration and new Congress can and should enact soon.

Here are Appalachian Voices’ federal priorities, with an intense focus on the next six months. In the coming weeks and months, we will be asking you to get involved and help make sure decision-makers in Washington move these critical initiatives forward.

Economic Transition in Coal Communities

The Biden administration and Congress should commit tens of billions of dollars to coal communities for economic transition. America’s ongoing energy shift is already presenting economic challenges, now accelerated by the pandemic’s impacts, condensing a community’s timeline to prepare. Given this urgency, the federal government must act quickly and boldly. Below, we highlight several opportunities for investment, but this is not an exhaustive list. For further ideas, see the National Economic Transition Platform.

Black Lung Disability Trust Fund
Congress should extend for at least 10 years the current tax rate on coal production that supports this fund, which provides critical financial support and covers medical costs for miners with black lung if their former employer has gone bankrupt. The tax rate is slated to be halved at the end of 2021. Congress should also eliminate the loophole that allows companies to avoid paying taxes on coal exports.

Abandoned Mine Land Reauthorization
Congress should reauthorize the AML program, and extend the modest fee on coal production for 15 years. The fee goes toward cleaning up dangerous and polluting coal sites across the country that were abandoned prior to 1977. There is still well over $10 billion in cleanup needs across the country, but fee collection is scheduled to stop in September 2021.

RECLAIM Act
Congress should pass the RECLAIM Act, which will expedite $1 billion in spending from the AML Fund.The bill will create immediate jobs as well as the conditions for longer-term, locally driven economic development efforts to build better, brighter futures in coal communities across the country.

Treasury Funds
As Congress provides trillions of dollars for infrastructure investments and economic stimulus, as expected, lawmakers should direct $10 billion from the General Treasury to the AML Fund to be distributed to states over the next 10 years. Extending the existing fee on coal production is necessary, but is still insufficient to fully address coal’s polluting legacy, which continues to burden the surrounding communities.

Energy Democracy

Utility Shutoffs
The Biden administration should issue an executive order requiring the Centers for Disease Control to issue a national moratorium on all critical utility shutoffs during the pandemic. No one should lose access to water, electricity or the internet during this crisis.

Tennessee Valley Authority
The administration should work with TVA, a federally managed electric utility, to
achieve net-zero climate emissions by 2030, and do so in a way that is equitable, giving communities and stakeholders meaningful ways to make decisions about their energy system. The president can appoint new TVA board members who adhere to that goal. Congress also has the ability to provide hundreds of billions of dollars for clean energy and economic transition to make equitable decarbonization a reality.

Coal Mining and Reclamation

Coal Mine Permits
Even as the coal industry declines, mining permits are still being issued. We strongly discourage the U.S. Office of Surface Mining and Enforcement from allowing new surface mining in Central Appalachia. If any new permits are issued, OSMRE must improve its oversight to ensure that any new permit has a strong reclamation plan and sufficient, secure reclamation bonds.

Financial Bonding
OSMRE must ensure that when mines are closed, the land is properly reclaimed in a timely manner. Increasingly, coal companies are allowing mines to languish, neither producing coal nor completing reclamation. And as bankruptcies continue, more mines are at risk of abandonment and may not have adequate money for reclamation.

Fracked-gas Pipelines

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
FERC should require evidence of actual market demand before approving any proposed interstate gas pipelines. Further, the agency must apply proper environmental justice analysis, provide meaningful public participation opportunities, and provide critical landowner and environmental protections for any project that does move forward.

U.S. Forest Service
The Biden administration can ensure the agency fulfills its mandate to protect the national forests under its purview for all Americans and not break or bend its own environmental rules just to accommodate the gas industry — as it did in rubber-stamping recent approvals for the unneeded Mountain Valley Pipeline.

With your help, we can achieve every one of these ambitious policy goals. The task is both daunting and incredibly exciting. Thank you for taking it on with us.

On January 27, President Biden issued executive actions on climate change, environmental justice, and economic transition for historically coal-dependent communities. Read more here.

About Thom Kay

AV's Legislative Director, Thom spends his days between Durham, NC and Washington D.C., knee deep in politics and legislation, working to persuade decision-makers to protect Appalachian communities from mountaintop removal and to invest in a new economy for the region. He is the least outdoorsy person at Appalachian Voices, and he's just fine with that.


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