U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois introduced a bill on Thursday that would make higher education tuition-fee for coal workers and their families, extend Medicare coverage to all coal workers who have lost their jobs, and change U.S. bankruptcy rules to require coal companies to pay workers’ health care and pension costs.
The plan — the “Marshall Plan for Coal Country Act” — would also require coal power plants to be formally decommissioned once operators stop using them. And it would subsidize carbon capture technology for any coal power plant with at least eight years of operational life left, including building pipelines to transport captured carbon to “geologic repositories” such as those in Illinois.
The prospect of broad-based federal support for coal communities had the potential of winning support from coal trade associations and labor unions alike. But one plank of that support — a federal $15 an hour minimum wage to “stabilize” coal communities hit by the loss of well-paid jobs — risks alienating conservatives.
At least two aspects of the plan — its blanket funding for higher education and health care — appeared to go beyond what other proposals to help coal communities have offered. Retraining is a common theme of economic revitalization packages, but the focus tends to be on technical skills or job-specific training and to stop short of blanket funding. And while there are many examples of state or federal programs aimed at helping former coal workers get more or better health care, the “Marshall Plan for Coal Country Act” goes further in calling for Medicare coverage for all former coal workers.
“For centuries, our nation has relied on the sacrifices made by coal country—and coal workers—to industrialize and power our nation with affordable energy,” Duckworth said. “We can’t afford to leave them behind.”
Duckworth’s office touted an endorsement of the plan by the United Mine Workers of American International, a labor union. “Senator Duckworth’s bill is comprehensive and includes several programs and initiatives that would have strong, positive impacts on economically depressed communities in the coalfields,” said Cecil E. Roberts, the UMWA president.
Thursday’s plan is short on details. The Senator does not say how the government would pay for the policies, and several of its ambitious proposals are outlined only with one brief bullet point.
Mike Cope, president of the Ohio Coal Association, said his group would need to see more details before giving the plan more consideration. “The 64,000 dollar question is, ‘Where will the funding come from?’” Cope said in an email.
Others said it by and large took the right approach and welcomed the focus on carbon capture technology. “We need to study the details more closely, but at first blush, this is a thoughtful approach to solving a critical piece of the climate puzzle,” said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a non-profit.
While lacking in specifics, Duckworth’s proposal could serve as a policy blueprint for her priorities if Democrats’ nominee for President, Joe Biden, selects her to be his running mate as vice president. A veteran who became a double amputee while flying helicopters in Iraq and later served two terms in the House of Representatives, Duckworth is considered a leading contender to be Biden’s vice-presidential pick.
Coal workers and their families have struggled with spiraling unemployment in both the coal mining and coal power sectors, as coal power stations become less and less competitive against cheaper natural-gas fired power stations and the growing momentum of wind and solar power farms. Some communities in states like West Virginia and Kentucky, home to high concentrations of current or former coal miners or power plant workers, have suffered from low levels of health care coverage and opioid addiction as workers struggle to retool.
Duckworth’s plan is not the first proposal to help coal workers and their families this campaign season. Biden and his campaign team proposed investing heavily in coal communities as part of a recently announced climate plan, although it mainly focused on health and health care coverage for coal workers. And at the end of last month, in a separate 538-page climate plan, House Democrats said they would help coal communities through “wage replacement,” health care support, contributions to retirement and pension funds, paid retraining opportunities, and other targeted assistance for hard-hit places. Neither proposal goes as far as Duckworth’s in terms of blanket guarantees.
Ambitious plans to help coal communities have been tried before, only to be shot down or fall short of doing much good.
In 2016, the administration of former President Barack Obama created what it called the POWER Plus plan, which would have used over $1 billion in funding for coal communities to clean up abandoned mine lands while investing in local industries and paying for former miners to retrain, but it was quashed by Congress. And in late 2015, a plan by presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton would have used $30 billion to pay for coal workers’ pensions and to help them retrain in other industries.
Under U.S. President Donald Trump, who has championed the coal community as a key constituency, efforts to help coal workers have focused chiefly on forestalling the industry’s decline, for example through bailouts or built-in protections for coal power. But the industry has continued to shed jobs regardless.
The federal government already offers support in several ways to former coal workers and as a general provision to laid-off workers. For example, it backstopped a fast-depleting pension fund for 100,000 retired coal miners as part of the $1.4 trillion 2019 federal budget. And the Department of Labor has paid out tens of millions through National Dislocated Worker Grant funding. Still, federal-level protections for former coal workers remain scanty, with the lack of widespread health coverage for these workers one area that has been especially often criticized.