Trump failed fossil fuel-reliant communities — Build Back Better invests in them

As Democrats rework their strategy to introduce a Build Back Better bill that can pass the Senate, they would be wise to retain the House provisions that invest in rebuilding fossil fuel-reliant communities. 

As my research has shown, these communities have been failed by previous administrations and Congresses. The Trump administration, for instance, doubled down on strategies that prolong the nation’s reliance on extractive industries, under the pretext of helping these communities, but to the benefit of company executives. 

The March 2020 COVID-19 economic rescue package, administered by then Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, provided loans to oil and gas companies but failed to mandate that companies keep workers on the payroll. The administration even rejected states’ request for funds to cap abandoned wells that would have kept workers employed and returned lands to productive use. 

The Trump administration falsely promised a coal revival. In reality, with successive coal companies’ bankruptcies, workers sacrificed their health and retirement benefits, while coal executives secured bonuses and coal companies shed their responsibilities to remediate lands scarred from mountaintop removal and abandoned mines. Corporate owners deftly moved inefficient coal plants into regulated electricity markets, for instance that of West Virginia. As a result, the state’s ratepayers are forced to subsidize these plants, even when shifting to cheaper solar and wind generation plus other energy efficiency programs would have reduced ratepayers’ fast-rising electricity bills

The hard work and sacrifices of fossil fuel communities powers America’s economic prosperity and benefits regions often far away from the extractive centers. That same hard work and tenacity energizes their efforts to rebuild their economies. The Coalfield Development Inc. has incubated social enterprises in construction, agriculture and solar installation, African American farmers are building on their knowledge and heritage to nurture regenerative agriculture. 

In 2019, Reimagine Appalachia, a group of grassroots organizations (labor, environment and civic groups), spelled out steps to build an inclusive economy anchored in renewable energy, sustainable agriculture and conservation. The United Mine Workers of America’s 2021 energy transitions initiative called for government investments that can help spur job creation with living wages, including renewable energy jobs and that direct investments into coal communities.

The Build Back Better bill puts workers and communities in the front and center. It injects $5 billion to the Economic Development Administration, with specific carveouts for fossil fuel reliant communities, to develop regional economic growth clusters. It incentivizes the building of renewable energy facilities, with additional inducements for those that locate in communities affected by closures of coal mines and coal power plants. 

It provides $9.7 billion in loans and grants to assist rural cooperatives to shift to renewable energy sources. As my book explains, many of these cooperatives, which serve 92 percent of the persistent poor counties across the United States, are locked into long-term contracts with more expensive coal power generation. Environmental justice grants assist remediation in communities in the frontline of coal combustion and fossil fuel extraction. Climate funds can support conservation efforts to mitigate worsening flood events. These provisions, plus loans and grants to support solar installation and weatherization, can spur job creation and generate local tax revenue, essential for the economic transformation of these communities.

The bill invests in people. The extension of the Child Tax Credit will keep thousands of children out of poverty and provide them with better health care and better educational opportunities. Multiple studies have shown how investments at childhood more than repay in wage returns. The bill supports investments to meet basic needs, including water and wastewater management and energy savings programs. It extends the Black Lung excise tax that pays for health and benefits for affected miners.

The bill enjoys the staunch support of numerous grassroots organizations, labor unions, environmental groups, almost 400 business and investor coalitions as well as the general public. 

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the bill would yield a deficit of $160 billion over 10 years (0.1 percent of GDP). By contrast, the 2017 tax cut that added $1.9 trillion to the debt over a decade with benefits skewed toward the wealthiest Americans. Deficit spending on distressed people and communities, with appropriate oversight, is a prudent economic strategy.

Shanti Gamper-Rabindran, the author of “America’s Energy Gamble: People, Economy and Planet (Cambridge University Press 2022), is an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

Tags Build Back Better Climate change Coal Energy Fossil fuels Shanti Gamper-Rabindran Steven Mnuchin

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