Thursday, November 12, 2015

When Good Politics is Also Good Public Policy: Clinton's Plan for Coal Communities

With the presidential election about a year away, every move by candidates is assessed first and foremost for it's potential impact on electoral politics. With people like Sen. Mitch McConnell accusing President Obama and Democrats of waging a "war on coal," the politics of committing to clean energy can have a negative impact on support from coal communities. That is why Hillary Clinton's announcement today of a $30 billion plan to aid those communities is good politics.

But we should note that this plan is also good public policy. The introduction captures our current situation.
From Central Appalachia to the Powder River Basin, coal communities were an engine of US economic growth for more than a century. Coal powered the industrial revolution, the 20th century expansion of the middle class, and supplied as much as half of US electricity for decades. The hard-working Americans who mine, move, and generate power from coal put their own health and safety at risk to keep our factories running and deliver the affordable and reliable electricity we take for granted.

But today we are in the midst of a global energy transition. The shale revolution, low-cost renewable energy, energy efficiency improvements, and pressing concerns about the impact of coal combustion on public health and the global climate are reducing coal demand both in the US and around the world. Coal now accounts for only one third of US power generation, with domestic consumption falling by 25% over the past ten years...

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. But we can’t ignore the impact this transition is already having on mining communities, or the threat it poses to the healthcare and retirement security of coalfield workers and their families. 
Clinton's plan goes on to lay out a comprehensive agenda, outlining steps to secure pensions, shore up schools hit by lost local government tax revenue, retrain workers and expedite permitting for renewable energy projects.

This goes to the heart of what we should expect from good government. The fact that energy production is transitioning away from coal is a good thing for all of us that value a healthy planet. But we should not be content to allow the negative results of that transition fall only on our fellow citizens who have depended on this dying industry for their livelihood. It is our responsibility as a country to step in and help them with the transition - much as we rally around those communities who have been impacted by natural disasters.

We'll hear a lot about how this plan is designed to help Clinton shore up votes in Appalachian coal country. The fact that it is good politics was confirmed by this response from the RNC:
“Hillary Clinton is Public Enemy No. 1 for coal miners and their communities because she wholeheartedly supports President Obama’s EPA agenda that is crippling their way of life," RNC spokesman Michael Short. "If Hillary Clinton were truly on the side of coal country, she would stand up to extreme anti-energy environmentalists that run the Democrat Party instead of embracing their agenda that is killing jobs and driving up costs.”
In other words...they got nothin'. That's because in this case, good politics is also good public policy.


  1. Appalachia is tough tough country to improve, just by virtue of the terrain. One of the reasons Appalachia remains perpetually impoverished, I am convinced, is that mountain country makes it difficult to construct cities where residents can benefit from economy of scale.

    If Hillary has plans to help Appalachia, I'm all for it. But it's a figurative / literal uphill battle. You can make Las Vegas habitable by piping in massive amounts of water, but you can't make Appalachia workable by piping in massive amounts of flat.

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  3. The Federal government should build several tall wind turbines for research on the tops of hills, and in the passes between mountains, in every state that has some Appalachia. Then everyone can figure out what works best, and then we can do more of that. Ideally, everyone who works in the coal industry will eventually know people who are doing well in the wind energy business.
    And in areas that get more sun than wind, there should be more diverse trials of different solar energy technologies. These are partly to study the technology, and partly to learn about introducing alternatives to various rural areas.