By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A small but growing number of Appalachian coal communities are urging Republicans in Congress to support a proposed $1 billion federal aid program from the Obama administration to save local economies ravaged by the decline of the coal industry.
Nearly a dozen Appalachian coal mining communities have passed resolutions over the past few weeks supporting President Barack Obama's Power + program, which was outlined in his 2016 budget. It will be considered in the fall when Congress returns from recess.
From towns such as Norton, Virginia, to Letcher County, Kentucky, local officials have called on their Washington representatives to back the proposal that would provide public funds for new economic activities around reclaimed coal mines in the Appalachian Mountains.
"This isn't a partisan issue here," said Eric Dixon, policy coordinator for the Appalachian Citizens' Law Center in Whitesburg, Kentucky, which has helped push the resolutions across the region. "We have Republicans and Democrats in the mountains who support this plan."
In Washington, however, Republican lawmakers have been reluctant to support Power +. They contend that the administration's energy policies, including regulations forcing power plants to reduce carbon emissions tied to burning coal, have caused a contraction in the industry that has seen some of the country's biggest coal companies go into bankruptcy.
WAR ON COAL?
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who represents Kentucky and has accused the Obama administration of waging a "war on coal," has balked at endorsing Power +.
"Senator McConnell thinks that any bill introduced in the Senate that seeks to help coal miner’s suffering under this Administration’s war on coal should be carefully considered, but that no amount of federal relief can paper over the devastating damage this president and his policies have had on coal country," the senator’s spokesman Don Stewart said.
Funding for the Power + plan would come from the government's Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) program, which has nearly $2.5 billion in unused funds from fees on coal companies. The AML funds are allocated to states to clean up mines.
The Obama administration wants to tap $1 billion of that money for states to use for economic redevelopment projects at old mine sites. The money is currently intended to be distributed after 2021.
The prospect of getting an injection of cash that can be used for programs ranging from agriculture to tourism resonates on the ground in Appalachia, where another half-dozen coal communities plan to vote in the coming weeks on similar resolutions demanding that Congress agree to Power +.
Carl Shoupe, a retired miner and member of nonprofit Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, said Obama’s plan to finance mine reclamation projects could put people back to work. "We could be creating jobs in farming, energy, tourism, and more on these reclaimed mines," he said.
States in the Appalachian coal belt include Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
The White House has said it has been meeting with lawmakers from both parties, looking for a sponsor for legislation this fall that would authorize releasing the AML funds.
COAL COUNTRY HURTING
Coalfield Congressional Republicans favor federal help for their distressed economies, but they want to see major changes in the plan.
Congressman Hal Rogers, who represents eastern Kentucky's coal counties and chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said federal aid needs to be paired with "regulatory relief" from environmental rules "responsible for the downturn in the Eastern Kentucky coal industry," his spokeswoman Danielle Smoot said.
Rogers also wants the White House to provide more information about how the money would be distributed.
Both McConnell and Rogers said they have supported other elements of the Power + proposal, such as $25 million to support hard-hit coal communities and enhance broadband access in those remote regions, and $19 million for an employment program for laid-off coal miners.
Rogers's Appropriations Committee passed a $30 million pilot project he proposed as an alternative to the Obama proposal that would give grants to three Appalachian states to convert old mine sites for new uses like hospitals and community centers.
Gregory Conrad, executive director of the Interstate Mining Compact Commission, which is in charge of AML restoration projects, said lawmakers are likely to spar over how and where the money would be spent. He also noted that tapping the AML would require changes to the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act, which could usher in more legislative inertia.
There could also be opposition from Wyoming, a state that pays the most into the AML because it is still an active low-sulfur coal producer, yet stands to see the federal money go to older coal mining regions like Appalachia.
Joseph Pizarchik, director of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement that oversees the AML, said that only “minor amendments” would be needed to make the money available now.
"We know that people in coal country are hurting. We are asking Congress to let us use the money we have now to create the conditions to help people help themselves," he said.
(Reporting By Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Toni Reinhold)