Coal Tattoo

A different kind of coalfield discussion

FILE - In this Jan. 20, 2015 file photo, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., accompanied by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Senate Republicans discussed a proposal Wednesday to temporarily help millions of people who could lose federal health care subsidies should the Supreme Court annul the aid, which has been a pillar of President Barack Obama’s health care law.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Earlier this week in Washington, they had another one of these congressional hearings that beltway insiders thrive on about coal and climate and economics.

West Virginia’s own Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito was there, chairing the meeting of a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee meeting called, “The Impacts of EPA’s proposed Carbon Regulations on Electricity Costs for American Businesses, Rural Communities and Families.” Sen. Capito opened the hearing by saying:

I am not exaggerating when I say almost every day back home in West Virginia, there are new stories detailing plants closed, jobs lost, and price increases … It is important to note that all electricity has to come from somewhere. In many states, odds are that it is being imported from a state that relies on coal.  But no one is talking about that. 

While Sen. Capito was leading this hearing, a relatively small, but dedicated bunch of officials from various government agencies were meeting back home in West Virginia. Here’s the lead of the story I wrote about that meeting:

A team of Obama administration officials visited West Virginia this week to promote new programs and proposals to help struggling mining communities and hear about ongoing efforts by a variety of local groups to diversify coalfield economies.

Representatives from the White House and a half-dozen agencies met with economic development officials from state agencies and with a long list of local and regional non-profit organizations for a briefing on President Obama’s proposal to provide hundreds of millions of dollars in coalfield aid as part of his 2016 budget recommendation to Congress.

About 75 people who attended the meeting at Hawks Nest State Park also heard about additional money available through an ongoing companion initiative to provide federal help for local economic development planning and project implementation in communities around the country hit by layoffs as part of the coal industry’s downturn.

Now, a lot of this meeting focused on the ins-and-outs of the Obama programs, and the details of grant application rules and, frankly, a lot of stuff that, while not very sexy, plays a huge rule in how non-profit groups and others can go about creating bottom-up change in our society.  And, a lot of it also highlighted the growing efforts that go on — often without headlines, at least here in Charleston — of local citizens and leaders to try to build stronger communities in our coalfields. The first lesson I learned at this meeting is how much those of us who live in the state Capitol need to do more to understand and encourage such efforts.

But the first thing I saw when I got back to Charleston and started browsing the news was the headline from Inside Climate News: Aid Package for Coal Country Goes Ignored by Congress. They reported:

A massive $3 billion package to help struggling coal communities transition to a new economy is sitting unappropriated in the Republican-led Congress. And lawmakers are saying little—at least publicly—about if and how they ever plan to support it.

Locally, the Obama plan for coalfield aid also doesn’t necessarily get a lot of attention. Sometimes folks who support it don’t seem to necessarily mind that. There’s a feeling that too much attention drawn to meetings like the one at Hawks Nest will bring out the anti-Obama, anti-EPA crowd, and turn the meeting into a debate about regulatory policy — not a working meeting aimed at figuring out how to draw down federal money to help communities being hurt by coal’s downturn.

It’s hard to blame people for thinking that. I mean, we’re dealing with a West Virginia media corps that is sometimes so blinded by the coal industry PR machine that it cherry-picks science to try to belittle even reasonable efforts at reforms like energy efficiency, without even considering any of the significant evidence to the contrary (see here and here).

On the other hand, the case is so strong that many of the things that can be done to help spur economic diversity in the coalfields — improving education, providing more and better drug treatment, strengthening infrastructure — would be good things even if the coal industry were to boom again that it seems like the time is right stop worrying about the backlash.

It’s worth noting that Sen. Capito had a staffer at this week’s meeting in West Virginia. But when I asked her office about whether she supports the President’s coalfield aid proposal, I was directed to this MetroNew story which included this passage:

Capito …  said her concern, moving forward, is that any federal investments will have no lasting effects on West Virginia and the people who work in the state.

“I don’t want a pat on the head and the creation of a committee and millions of dollars put in to make everybody else feel better. I just don’t have a very optimistic view of the way the (Obama) Administration is looking at the economic devastation that’s occurred,” Capito said …

“I’m reading it as, ‘Let me give you some money. You can have a committee. You can find out how to transition and then we’re going to head out the door. We’re going to feel better about ourselves and good luck to you,’” she said.

Capito’s office added:

Senator Capito hopes that any investments made by the POWER initiative bolster distressed communities, create jobs and take into account the existing economic foundation upon which that community was built. She believes we can continue to maximize the use of our vast natural resources, work to protect our coal jobs and promote new sectors at the same time.

It’s a shame that in Kentucky meetings like the one in Hawks Nest happened under the leadership of elected officials, who came together in a bipartisan effort to diversify coalfield economies, while in West Virginia, it took a couple of small non-profit groups to bring in a team of Obama administration officials to talk about their program (it’s also a shame that the Obama administration didn’t schedule the meeting on its own, knowing how hard hit West Virginia’s coal communities have been by layoffs and mine closures).

Jason Walsh, a senior White House adviser, makes the argument that debates about what is causing coal’s decline — Obama and EPA or cheap natural gas, for example — will continue, but don’t have to get in the way of discussions about doing other things to improve coalfield communities, and make their economies more robust, resilient, and diverse.

It’s too easy, though, to allow the “war on coal” rants to take all of the oxygen out of the room. Leaders in Kentucky have found a way to create more political space for discussions about coalfield diversity. Over at Hawks Nest, I heard a lot of people who are trying to do that same thing here in West Virginia.