Coal Tattoo


It looks like any hopes that the Obama administration was going to increase spending on abandoned coal-mine cleanups in Appalachia — creating a potentially huge number of green jobs for the coalfields — have been dashed.

I’ve written before about how Obama’s preliminary budget proposal appeared aimed at redirecting more money from the Abandoned Mine Lands program to Appalachian states, where it’s really needed. See previous posts here, here, here and here. But based on the new budget documents released yesterday, that’s not really what the Obama proposal will do.

If you missed it, a brief summary: Back in February, the Interior Department announced that Obama’s 2010 budget proposal would include a major change in the federal Abandoned Mine Lands program.  The president was going to stop sending federal money for mine cleanups out to states (primarily Wyoming) that have already “certified” to the government that they have cleaned up all their abandoned coal mines.

The idea had a nice note of common sense to it, as summarized in a DOI budget summary document that said the administration proposed:

Terminating payments to coal-producing states that no longer need funds to clean up abandoned coal mines.

Doing this would free up this money — $142 million next year, increasing to more than $200 million by 2014 — to be used to reclaim abandoned coal mines in the states that, because of their long history of coal production before regulations, had the most abandoned sites. That includes West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky, places where coalfield communities would likely be hurt the most by Obama’s other priorities — like tightening regulations on mountaintop removal (if he actually does that) and capping greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.


So, now comes the detail of Obama’s budget proposal, released yesterday by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar (who wasn’t available to answer questions from out-of-town reporters or chat with the public online, but found time to yuk it up on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show).

And first of all, let’s make it clear that the media coverage of this was a little messed up. Most of the stories that summarized the cuts Obama was proposing of various government programs included a line that said something like: “Doing away with a $142 million program to help states pay to clean up abandoned mines.”

No. No. No.

What Obama proposed was to stop the sort of stuff I wrote about in my 2004 series, Abandoned Promises, where states like Wyoming — which cleaned up its abandoned coal sites — were using AML money to build new buildings on college campuses, construct roads, and do all sorts of other stuff that had little, if anything, to do with fixing coal mining damage.

I’m not sure where the national press got their information, because the real explanation is right there in the document that describes the programs Obama is eliminating:

The administration proposes to eliminate mandatory payments from the Treasury to States and Tribes that have been certified as having completed reclamation of their abandoned coal mines. These unrestricted payments can now be used by certified states for any purpose, which was not the original intention of the program.

Other “uncertified states” — those that still have abandoned mines left that need cleaning up, “will continue to receive payments, which must be used for abandoned coal mine reclamation and related activities.

OK, if you’re still with me here: So, Obama kept his proposal to stop payments under the AML program for states that have already cleaned up their abandoned coal mines.

But, the administration did not at the same time include in its budget any significant increase in spending on AML cleanups for the rest of the coalfields (except the increases that were already going to be made, based on the 2006 reauthorization of the AML program). (The Interior Department’s Budget in Brief document is available here, while the much more detailed budget document is here).

What’s going to happy to the money that’s save (remember, we’re talking $142 million next year, and up to more than $200 million by 2014)?

It’s going to go right back where Washington used to keep the AML money … in the U.S. Treasury, to help make the budget look more balanced than it really is.

Interior Department officials I talked to this week were quick to point out that, under the 2006 AML reauthorization, certified states weren’t technically getting their annual AML appropriation anymore from the actual AML Trust Fund. Instead, they were getting it out of the general treasury.

Why give them any money at all if they don’t actually have abandoned mines to clean up? Well, the answer to that is mostly political. States like Wyoming haven’t been in the coal business nearly as long as places like Pennsylvania and West Virginia. So, they didn’t have nearly as many pre-1977 mines to clean up. But, the huge surface mines in the Powder River Basin produce much of the nation’s coal and contribute most of the per-ton tax that goes into the AML Trust every year. And under the original AML program, all states were promised that they’d automatically get back half of the AML taxes they paid.

So to get the tax continued in 2006, Democrats like Sen. Robert C. Byrd and Rep. Nick J. Rahall (both of West Virginia) had to come up with some plan to keep giving that half of AML taxes back to certified states out west. Well, mostly to Wyoming. If they didn’t, Republicans would never have let the reauthorization of the AML tax pass.

That’s where the non-AML appropriation from the Treasury came from. Those certified states would continue to get an amount equal to their 50 percent of AML taxes. But it wouldn’t come out of the AML Trust Fund, a move that gave Wyoming its money, but also meant there would in the long run be more AML money for places like West Virginia and Kentucky.

Got all that?

If not, here’s the bottom line:

There was nothing stopping Obama from redirecting at least part of that $142 million in savings for next year back to AML projects in West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. For that matter, there wasn’t anything stopping Obama from proposing to start spending much more out of the AML Trust Fund on projects in those states where, again, economic impacts of tougher strip mining regulations and caps on greenhouse gases are likely to hurt the coal industry.

So I’m back where I started … What happened to the “green jobs” for the coalfields?

Well, I asked Peter Mali, a spokesman for the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. He said I’d need to talk to someone from the Interior Department. And the Interior Department kicked me to the White House.

My question:

The Obama administration is seeking to save serious money, starting with $142 million next year, by cutting off payments to certified states under the AML program. Why, as part of this initiative — and its effort to move toward “green jobs” — is the administration not redirecting that money (or otherwise increasing AML spending) to provide green jobs to offset potential jobs losses in West Virginia and other Appalachian states that may occur as a result of initiatives to more strictly regulate mountaintop removal and cap carbon dioxide emissions?

Last night, I got an answer from White House spokeswoman  Amy Brundage:

This budget will spark the transformation we need to create green jobs and launch renewable energy nation-wide.  The President believes as part of any comprehensive energy and climate legislation that consumers and communities should be compensated if, during the transition period, there are additional costs associated with reducing carbon emissions and that regional impacts should be taken into account and addressed as Members of Congress draft a bill.

Anybody like that answer?