By Nicolas Loris
Right now, Congress is considering a bill with the appealing name of the RECLAIM Act. It’s actually a real mouthful: Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More. As positive as that sounds, it would actually allocate coal tax funds away from their intended purpose of remediating abandoned mine lands and reducing risks to public health and safety. And it would also exacerbate well-known problems with federally funded efforts to stimulate certain regions of the economy.
Currently, a federal program called Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation imposes a tax on coal-mining operations in the United States to pay for the cleanup of abandoned mines across the country. The program remediates sites mined prior to 1977 — before any law stipulated how mines should be reclaimed.
The RECLAIM Act would authorize the Secretary of the Interior Department to devote an additional $200 million per year beyond regular distributions to “economic revitalization” projects for distressed coal-mining communities. But that’s clearly beyond the original, essential purpose of the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation program. And attaching economic revitalization and community development to mine reclamation would prioritize politically enticing projects over ones that could actually reduce environmental and public health risks.
Although the proposed law would technically still fund reclamation projects, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement would allocate funding far beyond the bounds of reclamation. In fact, the federal government has already implemented a pilot program with goals similar to the RECLAIM Act, and the results were predictable. Washington dished out tens of millions of taxpayer dollars for things like job training programs. One project, a $1.9 million water supply line for a campground, aimed to create 10 to 15 jobs and “increase economic development through adventure tourism.” That equates to $127,000 to $190,000 of taxpayer dollars per job created. Other projects included an “outdoor adventure ground” (with an archery center and a horse barn), and the infrastructure for a plant to produce wood pellets sold as biomass fuel.
Such efforts go far beyond the abandoned mine program’s intended purpose. If it becomes law, the RECLAIM Act would simply increase funding for politically preferred projects rather than address more pressing, environmentally at-risk areas.
The legislation would also duplicate existing federal, state, and private sector efforts designed to inject economic growth into struggling coal communities. In 2017, the Appalachian Regional Commission spent $152.3 million of taxpayer money across the 13 Appalachian states. And to help coal communities adversely affected by an onslaught of federal regulations targeting coal, Congress and the Obama administration launched the Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization Initiative (POWER) in 2015. Since its inception, the program has spent $94 million across 250 counties.
Unfortunately, federal job training programs have had dismal rates of success. Last November, Reuters reported on low participation in the POWER Initiative. In two Pennsylvania counties, sign-ups for retraining programs reached only 15 percent of capacity. Only 20 people signed up for 95 slots in a computer coding class.
If policymakers want to enact reform to help coal communities, they should eliminate the plethora of federal regulations that significantly increase the costs of mining coal, building new plants, and operating existing plants.
Many of these regulations are devoid of any meaningful environmental benefits and duplicate state efforts to protect air and water quality. Despite proponents marketing the RECLAIM Act as an economic and environmental revitalization, diverting funds intended for abandoned mine land from high-priority public health and safety sites will only exacerbate the issues that plague the program.
Nicolas Loris is an economist at The Heritage Foundation.