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Congressional coal advocates ready agenda for life under Trump

Equipped with majorities in the Senate and House and a vocal advocate in the White House for the first time in nearly a decade, congressional coal advocates are preparing an agenda that intends to assist the ailing industry and those who've left it behind.

As 2016 comes to a close, coal supporters in the U.S. Congress are gearing up for life under a Trump administration, assisted by congressional majorities that could make it easier to push back on federal regulations often cited as detrimental to the sector.

"When we went down our list of things the [Congressional Coal Caucus] can work with the Trump administration, we talked with them about rolling back regulations so we don't have pressure on our coal-fired power plants," said the caucus chair, Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va.

McKinley also outlined a call for additional funding for research efforts to "clean our natural gas, oil and coal, in particular, as we produce it" for both domestic use and exporting that technology abroad. This would also include assistance for emissions-reducing technology.

In addition to pushing for efforts to roll back Obama administration environmental and energy regulations, most notably the U.S. EPA's Clean Power Plan and the Stream Protection Rule, industry supporters have laid out plans to push for assistance for miner retirement and healthcare programs.

In early December, supporters of legislation intended to provide funding for miner healthcare and pension programs accepted a short-term solution after failing to find sufficient support for the Miners Protection Act.

With healthcare benefits set to expire in January 2017, supporters of the bill were left to accept the short-term funding option after promises to block any other bills from passing by unanimous consent faltered.

The move will push the miner healthcare benefits measure into the new congressional session, where it could again face opposition, including from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other Republicans.

McKinley and other lawmakers from coal-producing states like Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., hope the new session will allow the passage of a more concrete funding package for miner healthcare programs.

However, federal assistance for healthcare could prove difficult as some critics of funding efforts have placed the blame for shortfalls on Obama administration regulations and their impact on coal companies' financial standing.

Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, laid the blame on the Obama administration and Senate Democrats for getting the miners into the fix in the first place through eight years of regulatory pressure that sent companies into bankruptcy.

"Any attempt by Democrats to blame someone else is just a distraction," Barrasso said on the Senate floor on Dec. 9. "Health and pension funds can pay benefits for retired workers as long as the mines are actually working and they can mine coal and sell coal and make money."

The effort to address the ailing industry pensions would prove more difficult, as Republican critics have been hesitant to provide funding for fear it could set a precedent for federal assistance for retirement programs.

According to Wyoming's Republican Sen. Mike Enzi, the current bill would provide federal funds that he feels will address only a fraction of the ailing United Mine Workers of America pension program and do so before a number of other industry systems are expected to become insolvent.

The bill, Enzi said, was "borrowing from the future for a problem today."

Still, McKinley said he remains confident that Congress will be able to find a funding solution for the healthcare benefits.

"In the first four months, we'll find a solution," he said. "And shame on us if we have to kick the can down the road again … I can't believe in my heart that [the] leadership we have in the House and Senate and the president would allow some 20,000 miner retirees to be taken off their healthcare benefits."

Despite these obstacles, McKinley and others remain bullish on what might be possible in the coming months, citing the selection of Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., to head the U.S. Department of the Interior as a positive sign about the president-elect's priorities. McKinley said he hopes Zinke can play a part in rolling back a moratorium on federal coal leasing.

Regardless of their congressional dominance heading into 2017, some industry observers have suggested that coal supporters will need to act swiftly and legislatively to ensure progress for the region.

"It's great that we have a really pro-fossil fuel administration, it's great there is a Congress where the majority appears to be pro-fossil fuel, but we have a society where we have large numbers of Americans who want to see significant reductions in CO2 — that's not going to go away," said Cloud Peak Energy Inc.'s Vice President for Government and Public Affairs Richard Reavey at a recent industry event.

He suggested that the industry had about 18 months to implement legislation before midterm elections threatened to weaken Republicans' congressional dominance.