The Corner

Feds Halt New Coal-Mining Leases — Toss Out-of-Luck Miners a Worthless Bone

Remember when those crazy Republicans in Congress were accusing the Obama administration of waging a make-believe “War on Coal”? Well, the New York Times has an update, buried on page A17:

The Obama administration announced on Friday a halt to new coal mining leases on public lands as it considers an overhaul of the program that could lead to increased costs for energy companies and a slowdown in extraction. . . . 

The move represents a significant setback for the coal industry, effectively freezing new coal production on federal lands and sending a signal to energy markets that could turn investors away from an already reeling industry. President Obama telegraphed the step in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night when he said “I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet.”

Interestingly, the Times followed up the next day with an article headlined “U.S. Pledges to Ease Pain of Closing Mines in Shift to Cleaner Energy” (page A11 — not exactly headline news).

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Mr. Obama explicitly conceded that his push to transition the American economy away from coal-fired electricity and toward cleaner sources such as wind and solar could help the planet — but leave coal mining communities behind. He said that the government had a role to play in helping them find work in new fields.

“Now we’ve got to accelerate the transition away from old, dirtier energy sources,” he said. “Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future, especially in communities that rely on fossil fuels. We do them no favor when we don’t show them where the trends are going.”

The goal of the administration’s new coal plan is to extract more money from coal companies for mining on federal land and invest that revenue back into coal communities to help them train and prepare for new jobs.

But in many coal-heavy but relatively remote areas, such as West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, Wyoming and Montana’s Powder River Basin, job options are limited. And the federal government’s efforts to help communities transition from a dying industry to more vibrant ones have met limited success, as steel towns in the Midwest and tobacco towns in the south attest.

“Look at Youngstown, Ohio,” said Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America. “Our great concern is if government policy is going to move us away from coal the way government policy moved those communities away from steel, we don’t want to end up the same way.”

In short, the administration is admitting that federal coal policy will destroy the livelihoods of thousands of Americans and the (already precarious) economic foundations of their communities. But the government plans on throwing a few extra dollars their way to keep everyone quiet.

“We recognize many coal communities are in transition and struggling,” Shaun Donovan, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, said Friday in a conference call with reporters.

The spending bill that Congress passed last month included $10 million to support new economic development programs in Appalachia, and Mr. Donovan said Mr. Obama’s budget request for the 2017 fiscal year would include $1 billion over five years for programs to reclaim and redevelop retired coal mines for different economic activities.

$1 billion over five years? Who would have ever thought that an American presidential administration could buy and sell an entire sector of the American economy so cheap? The Obama administration has now moved on to soothingly telling the American people, “Don’t worry, if you don’t make your living from coal, this won’t affect you in any way. We wouldn’t dream of going after your industry.”

Yet.

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