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New report lauds broader measures to help coal communities

Broader measures that target coal communities provide a promising future for coal country, according to a new report.

"A recurring theme in the 2016 presidential election was how to assist those being economically left behind in the United States," said a Dec. 15 report by the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy that examines strategies for helping coal communities adapt to a changing economy. "Work being done to support coal miners and their communities is essential to prevent an economic free-fall in vulnerable coal communities."

The Kleinman Center is a privately funded venture at the University of Pennsylvania whose stated vision is: "Transition from a fossil-fueled energy system with uncompensated external costs to one that optimizes energy productivity through smart demand, internalized carbon impacts, and sustainable supply."

The report examines legislation like the RECLAIM Act, the POWER Plus Plan and a number of other strategies to help ailing coal communities affected by the downturn of the industry and said that many measures being taken to help miners themselves may be little more than "stop-gap measures."

In particular, the report said that while programs have been created to retrain coal workers for different work sectors, these new jobs are often not in the same communities as the coal jobs that were lost. "Despite the work the government does to retrain people and attract businesses, people will likely be propelled to leave their communities to find jobs (a trend that is already happening), and this population is not likely to be replaced (due to a lack of jobs). Still others may choose to leave the labor force altogether."

"Many of the investments being made for the future of these coal communities will not assist all of the coal workers today who are laid off from work and looking to support their families," the report said. "These investments will require time to yield results."

Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association, told S&P Global Market Intelligence "instead of consigning miners to menial, low-wage work after being trained by federal workers paid with taxpayer money for a 'more diversified economic future,' why not lift the regulatory boot off their neck and minimize their hardships that prompt calls for welfare programs?"

President-elect Donald Trump made promises to bring back the coal industry during his campaign, and coal industry advocates have recently said that the incoming leader can fix some of coal's woes.

The Kleinman report said investing in saving the coal industry is not the best use of tax dollars as the tax base of states reliant on coal shrinks, however.

"Tax dollars may not be able to overcome powerful economic drivers, such as enhanced competition from non-coal energy sources," the report said.

"Money may be better spent on education and support for the infrastructure and initiatives in place to move these communities forward. As energy systems transition, there is the real potential for coal to continue to be marginalized."

Popovich called the report "the classic faculty lounge prescription" that was "as distant from reality as the [Democratic National Convention] was from November voters."

He said that federal rules like the new stream rule could cost a minimum of 40,000 direct jobs and "deny local communities heavily reliant on coal their share of the $18.5 billion annually from coal production."

The report noted that one of the advantages coal communities will face is their resiliency, even as the contraction of the industry affects not just individuals who lost jobs but whole communities that benefited economically from the industry.

Projects for economic development should help these communities in the long-term, however. West Virginia just announced $30 million in investment in development projects, for example, while Pennsylvania and Kentucky have similar funding for projects.

"People want to see their communities thrive," the report said. "Helping people stay where they are by making it the best place it can be is an investment that provides dividends. Investing today in our struggling coal communities, will hopefully result in sustainable solutions for tomorrow."