Clinton Courts Coal Country with $30 Billion Infrastructure Plan
Policy + Politics

Clinton Courts Coal Country with $30 Billion Infrastructure Plan

REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton on Thursday unveiled a $30 billion plan to rescue the struggling economies of the nation’s coal producing states. It includes major highway and infrastructure construction, tax breaks to encourage investment and a raft of measures to bolster local schools, protect miners’ retirement and health benefits and diversify the economy.

The proposal arrives on the heels of the former secretary of state’s strong stands in support of President Obama’s climate change and clean air policies, which critics say have wreaked havoc on the coal industry and thrown hundreds of thousands of miners out of work. More recently, she joined Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley in opposing the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project, denouncing it as another threat to the environment.

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So it would be easy to write off her plan as pandering to impoverished but politically important regions of the country. Obama is widely despised by voters in West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and other coal-dependent states because of the anti-coal policies of the Environmental Protection Agency. Last week’s surprise Kentucky gubernatorial victory by Tea Party conservative Matt Bevin was largely attributed to Bevin’s success in linking Democratic candidate Jack Conway to Obama’s policies.

Clinton mustered strong support from working class voters in coal-dependent states during her unsuccessful campaign against Obama for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. But her subsequent embrace of the president’s environmental and energy policies may hurt her this time round. And that is why her infrastructure plan may prove to be an effective element of her overall campaign platform, as she fends off a strong primary challenge from Sanders and looks ahead to a tough general election campaign.

Yet some experts say her plan also has an important, far ranging public policy component that transcends her immediate political concerns.

Essentially, Clinton is proposing to make it a national policy to revitalize coal-producing regions that have been devastated by the country’s steady and dramatic shift away from coal as a primary energy source to cleaner and more efficient sources.

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The advent of tougher environmental, energy and safety policies over the past decade -- amid mounting concerns about air pollution and global warming -- contributed to a 25 percent reduction in domestic consumption of coal over the last decade and fostered widespread unemployment and poverty in areas that saw large numbers of mines close.

While millions of Americans in coal country have been hurt by the global transition from coal to other sources of energy – especially throughout the Great Recession – this drama has been overshadowed by the bruising political and legal battles between the Obama administration and the coal industry and its congressional allies including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

“It’s obviously a good idea for Clinton to reach out to the coal community -- and not just for political reasons,” said William Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton. “These are people who are perennial candidates for being the most left-behind Americans. And as you recall, John F. Kennedy made a memorable visit and waged a memorable West Virginia campaign on very much the same issue. West Virginia was a poster child for the Great Society, and regrettably things have just gotten worse in the past few years.”

“So just on simple policy and humanitarian grounds, you’re telling people the country cares about them,” added Galston, a political scholar at the Brookings Institution. “It’s no more permissible to leave behind victims of an economic storm than it is Hurricane Katrina.”

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Clinton would address those problems by waging the equivalent of a mini-war on poverty, one in which the federal government would target coal producing states for  major infrastructure projects, including new highways, bridges, water system and airports. She would also work with the Department of Transportation and the railroad companies to leverage available rail capacity previously used to ship coal.  

Clinton’s long-term plan includes federal funds to prompt new types of economic development in Appalachia and other coal-dependent communities by building up infrastructure, expanding broadband access and giving tax breaks for new investment in communities hit by a decline in coal production.

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“Building a 21st century clean energy economy in the United States will create new jobs and industries, deliver important health benefits, and reduce carbon pollution,” Clinton’s campaign stated in a fact sheet.

Infrastructure is a hot topic in Washington these days, as the House and Senate are trying to hammer out a compromise $325-billion, multi-year transportation bill to address the problems of crumbling highways and bridges.

According to her campaign, Clinton as president would fight coal companies that use bankruptcy proceedings as an excuse to scrap their health care and pension commitments to retirees. She also promised to seek reforms of financially troubled black lung disease benefit programs and make sure ailing former miners receive all the benefits due them. The plan also calls for using certain federal lands as the site of alternative energy projects such as wind generation as a replacement for lost mining activities.

The campaign document provides a general overview of Clinton’s proposals, but does not specify how much each element would cost. Nor does it explain how Clinton expects to come up with the $30 billion, which would undoubtedly undergo intense scrutiny by Congress if the Republicans succeed in retaining control of the House and Senate in 2016.