Federal officials trying to help central Appalachian counties reeling from losses of coal jobs say they will use a pot of new money “to demonstrate that Appalachia really is the next great investment opportunity in America.”
That’s how Earl Gohl, federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, described it in a conference call with reporters from the region. Jay Williams, assistant secretary of commerce for economic development, endorsed the description.
They were joined by Jason Walsh, a senior economic policy adviser at the White House, who in response to a question challenged the widespread belief in central Appalachia that President Obama’s environmental policies are largely responsible for the sharp decline of coal in the region.
The officials announced that the administration would have $65.8 million available for economic-development efforts in communities that have historically relied on coal and have been hurt by changes in the coal economy. The money comes from a recent congressional appropriation from the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Fund, funded by a federal tax on coal. Walsh said the administration wants to prioritize projects where reclamation can be linked to job development.
The money can be used for “projects that diversify local and regional economies, create jobs in new and/or existing industries, attract new sources of job-creating investment and provide a range of workforce services and skills training; building partnerships to attract and invest in the economic future of coal-impacted communities; and increasing capacity and other technical assistance fostering long term economic growth and opportunity in coal-impacted communities,” the ARC and the Economic Development Administration said in a press release.
“This program is really an investment in the next generation of leadership of Appalachians,” Gohl said, citing the youthful energy he sees in places like Whitesburg and Harlan County, Kentucky, and Princeton, W.Va.
The effort is part of the administration’s Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization, or POWER initiative. Obama proposed a $1 billion aid package, but Republicans in Congress largely rejected it. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said through an aide in August that he was for helping laid-off coal miners “but that no amount of federal relief can paper over the devastating damage this president and his policies have had on coal country.”
It is an article of faith among many if not most residents of the Central Appalachian coalfield that Obama’s environmental policies are largely responsible for the losses of coal jobs. The evidence does not support that, Walsh said, when asked if administration officials could get people in the coalfield to put that belief aside to work with them.
“It has been our premise all along that we can find some common ground here,” Walsh said, citing “bipartisan legislation moving in Congress” to provide even more money as an example.
“The fact is that the decline in coal jobs began well before President Obama took office, largely because of market forces,” most recently competition form cheap natural gas, Walsh said. “Any independent analyst who tracks the industry closely will tell you that the economic drivers are paramount.”
Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette-Mail cited such experts in making the same point almost two years ago. For Ward’s story on the conference call, click here.
Noting that most of the region’s good coal has been mined, Walsh said, “You gotta dig deeper or you gotta blow the tops off of mountains, and that’s really expensive… . The economic data is just there for anyone who cares to look at it.” He said people in coal communities are “less interested in data and debate than solutions.”
Obama said in his major climate-change speech at Georgetown University in 2013, “We’re going to need to give special care to people and communities that are unsettled by this transition.”
Gohl noted that Obama asked Congress to give ARC an extra $50 million this year, and said the agency has “not had a position in any administration’s domestic policy like in the Obama administration since the early days of ARC.”
Asked if the region can attract private capital to crate jobs, Gohl said, “The challenge of this work is that it’s local work,” dependent on local entrepreneurs like BitSource in Pikeville, Kentucky, which is training laid-off miners to be computer coders. He said the two owners have “big ideas, big plans and real serious challenges to meet, but they also have a sense that this is their future. This is an example of the creativity that we have in the region and allows us to have a great future.”
Al Cross, former C-J political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications. His opinions are his own, not UK’s.