By Amanda Becker
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on Thursday proposed a $30 billion plan to help displaced workers in coal-producing areas find new jobs and continue receiving health benefits as the country shifts to using renewable energy and more natural gas.
Clinton’s suite of proposals, which also includes expanding broadband Internet access and establishing a fund that would award competitive grants to small businesses, begins to detail her pledge to protect and build on President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which Republicans have criticized as a “war on coal” that will devastate producing regions.
Clinton, facing pressure from environmental activists and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, her chief rival for the Democratic nomination, has tacked to the left on environmental issues, saying in September she did not support TransCanada's <TRP.TO> proposed Keystone XL pipeline which would link existing networks to let oil flow from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.
Still, Clinton has said protecting the environment should not come at the expense of the economy and some of her pragmatic positions have drawn criticism from environmentalists. She has said fossil fuel extraction on public lands should be phased out and that she would not oppose lifting a long-standing ban on crude oil exports if it came with tradeoffs for clean energy.
Clinton has said repeatedly she will not forget the coal workers who “kept the lights on” and drove economic growth.
“We have to move away from coal, everybody understands that, there’s no doubt about it. But that does not and should not mean we move away from coal miners, their families and their communities,” Clinton said this week in New Hampshire.
Sanders, who calls his longtime Keystone opposition a “no brainer,” last week backed a proposal to halt new leases for fossil fuel extraction on public lands. He said he too would roll out an economic plan for coal workers in the coming days.
Declining demand for coal and anti-pollution regulations have dented the industry, pushing several companies into insolvency. Clinton last month took aim at two coal companies, Patriot Coal Corp and Peabody Energy Corp, that had sought to discharge their obligations to pay the health benefits of their retired mine workers in bankruptcy.
Clinton backs a Democratic proposal in the U.S. Congress that would provide what her campaign called a “federal backstop” for retired mine workers. Clinton would also expand that program to cover retirees of power plans and transportation companies who lose benefits in coal bankruptcies.
(Reporting by Amanda Becker; Additional reporting by Valerie Volcovici and Timothy Gardner; Editing by James Dalgleish)