Lobbying fight erupts over coal country bill

Lobbying fight erupts over coal country bill
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The lobbying fight over a House bill to revitalize coal country has heated up ahead of a key committee hearing on Tuesday.

Interest groups supporting the Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More (RECLAIM) Act, a bill to pump money into distressed coal communities in Appalachia, want to strengthen the bill before the House Natural Resources Committee sends it to the full House. 

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But a coal-mining industry group signaled its opposition to the legislation late last week, a move that could squeeze Republicans who might otherwise support the bill. 

“We’re going to educate, continue to work with the committee chair, and we’re hopeful,” Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-W.Va.), a sponsor of the bill, said. “I think we’re on track.”

The RECLAIM Act, from Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and a group of Appalachian lawmakers, would use $1 billion of Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) funding over five years to kick-start mine cleanup efforts in Appalachia. The AML program assesses a fee on mined coal and creates a cleanup fund for shuttered mines around the country.

The bill is designed to help local communities decimated by the downturn of the coal industry overhaul old mining sites, diversify their economies and create new jobs.    

The bill is broadly similar to one introduced last session, but that legislation won more support from Appalachia development officials and Democrats than the current version. 

Groups argue this year’s bill has been watered down to attract more support from Republicans. They say lawmakers need to focus more on diversifying local economies, not just simply cleaning up abandoned mines. 

“States need the flexibility to spend the money as they see fit,” said Thom Kay, a legislative official with the group Appalachian Voices.

Kay said his group is working with Democrats to try to amend the bill and give local economic development agencies the chance to tap into the money for economic development projects. 

“It’s important to us that they’re encouraged to spend it on projects that have an economic development aspect to it.”

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who sponsored last year’s version of the legislation, said he’d file an amendment to the bill in committee next week to add those goals. It will be a high-stakes vote: Democrats are only expected to broadly support the legislation if the amendment is adopted.

“We want to accelerate spending for coal reclamation, but let’s make sure we leave the option open for developing these communities that badly need the help, and that communities are part of the discussion,” Beyer said. “I’m not trying to kill the bill. I’m trying to make it better.” 

Further complicating the RECLAIM Act’s path forward is the National Mining Association’s (NMA) decision to come out against the bill in a letter to lawmakers on Thursday. 

“The bill fails to fix longstanding flaws in the Abandoned Mine Lands program and would perpetuate and accelerate the practices that have diverted most of the coal industry’s AML fees away from the primary purpose for the AML fund,” Hal Quinn, the group’s president, wrote in a letter to lawmakers. 

NMA, an influential coal-mining industry group, is aiming to overhaul federal mine cleanup efforts, including shutting down the federal fund, ending the fees assessed on mines and returning the power to individual states. The group’s objections to the RECLAIM Act, a spokesman said, are based mostly in its overall objections to the administration of the federal AML fund.

Even so, Kay said he worries that the mining group’s opposition to the bill will erode some of its support as it moves through Congress. 

“Really out of the blue, NMA has decided that the successful AML program is the new enemy, and they want to kill that program and they’re willing to take the RECLAIM Act with it,” he said.

Jenkins, a coal industry ally, said he’s “discussing the particulars” of the bill with NMA, but he doesn’t worry about whether the group’s opposition will hurt the legislation. 

“Getting coal moving again, getting our coal miners back to work, it is a multifaceted approach,” he said. “But in coal country, where there has been so much economic devastation left over from the Obama-era administration, we also need to turn these previously-mined property into economic engines.”

Appalachian lawmakers and economic development officials in the region have tried for a year and a half to get some version of the RECLAIM Act through Congress, but their effort has so far been stymied by coal politics on Capitol Hill.  

Last year’s bill drew objections from Western states, where coal companies contribute to the fund but officials are less worried about the type of economic diversification lawmakers are aiming for in Appalachia. 

This year’s legislation has strong allies, including Rogers, a former Appropriations Committee chairman, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat McConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Brent Budowsky: A plea to Alabama voters MORE (R-Ky.). 

But President Trump, who has signed executive orders designed to help the struggling coal sector, has yet to endorse the effort and has indicated he’s more interested in putting coal employees back to work in the mines, despite most economists believing that’s not possible. 

“I went to a group of miners in West Virginia,” Trump said at an event in March, retelling a story from the campaign trail. 

“I said: ‘How about this: Why don’t we get together, we’ll go to another place, and you’ll get another job, you won’t mine anymore. Do you like that idea?’ They said: ‘No, we don’t like that idea. We love to mine, that’s what we want to do.’ And I said, ‘If that’s what you want to do, that’s what you’re going to do.’ ” 

Several in the GOP have criticized Trump’s 2018 budget proposal, which slashes funding for federally funded economic development commissions in Appalachia and elsewhere. 

Jenkins said passing the bill would complement Trump’s work to help the industry, including legislation Trump signed to cut environmental restrictions on the coal sector.

“This is important for coal country,” he said. “It’s important for Appalachia. It’s about getting our communities back on their feet.”