POLITICS

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, Potential Biden VP, Pitches A 'Marshall Plan For Coal Country’

The bill would expand Medicare and raise the federal minimum wage to $15, but includes loans for "clean coal" technology.

In 2016, Republicans painted coal country red as the GOP blamed environmental regulations for the industry’s demise and Donald Trump vowed to bring it roaring back. 

But the economics of coal have only gotten worse. Despite his administration’s gutting of pollution rules, coal plants closed at a faster clip during Trump’s first three years in office than during Barack Obama’s entire second term. Republicans also cut safety regulations and made it easier for the rich owners of coal companies to abandon their workers’ pensions and health care plans even as black lung disease spiked across Appalachia. Miners in Kentucky’s Harlan County last year staged one of the biggest coal strikes in recent memory. 

Now Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a contender to serve as presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s running mate, is pitching an alternative vision. A new bill unveiled Thursday would provide federal loans, grants and job programs to clean up and redevelop polluted, economically depressed communities where mining and power stations were once the lifeblood.

But the plan also offers billions in loans to retrofit newer coal plants with so-called “clean coal” technology ― an approach that Biden once opposed and money that critics say would be better spent on clean energy. 

“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 in a statement. “Mineworkers spent their days in difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions to provide a good life for their families and help the rest of our country succeed. We can’t afford to leave them behind.” 

The 60-page legislation mirrors bipartisan bills that previously passed in the House of Representatives, and has already garnered strong union support, including from the United Mine Workers of America. But the proposal, dubbed the Marshall Plan for Coal Country Act, seems unlikely to go far in the Republican-controlled Senate. 

The proposal invests directly into coal communities, calling for the opening of new labor offices in the Department of Energy aimed at managing workers’ transition from coal to other industries. The bill ups the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, expands Medicare coverage and guarantees tuition-free college to coal workers and their families. It also provides loans to buy homes in communities within 50 miles of a coal plant. 

There’s money to clean up the pollution those plants left behind that causes respiratory disease and cancer. The legislation earmarks $200 million annually for four years to go to states and tribes to secure and remediate abandoned mines and requires that instead of leaving shuttered coal plants to rust, companies decommission these vast complexes, which will provide jobs in dismantling them. 

Another provision amends bankruptcy law to prevent coal executives from giving themselves bonuses and golden parachutes while dodging the costs of mine and plant cleanup and workers’ health care and pensions. 

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a contender to serve as Joe Biden’s running mate, is proposing a "Marshall Plan for Coal Country.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a contender to serve as Joe Biden’s running mate, is proposing a "Marshall Plan for Coal Country."

Yet Duckworth’s proposal falls short of the ambitious targets to reduce the nation’s output of planet-heating emissions that Democrats have increasingly rallied behind. Despite a lofty name harkening back to the U.S. program to help rebuild Europe after World War II, this “Marshall Plan” lays out no explicit strategies to phase out fossil fuels or to expand health care and job guarantee programs universally. Designing safety net measures to apply to all was a strategy that Depression-era President Franklin Roosevelt used to make them more popular and therefore harder for future administrations to limit or defund. But this bill extends Medicare only to miners and coal plant workers who have lost jobs and does not cover their families.

A central component of its economic development scheme is a $15 billion loan program to equip newer coal power stations with carbon capture technology, an expensive retrofit that prolongs the plants’ lifespans. 

Carbon capture proponents say the technology can help cut emissions from newer natural gas plants and would allow them to compete on price with solar and wind power once federal support increases. Congress passed a lucrative tax credit for carbon capture technology in 2018, but opaque rules on how it worked stalled projects. Last month, the Treasury and Internal Revenue Service proposed new regulations to clarify how the credits work, giving the industry a boost. And there’s little doubt that carbon capture tech is needed to cut emissions from hard-to-decarbonize heavy industries such as concrete and steel manufacturing. 

The bill limits the carbon capture funding to plants with “not less than 8 years of 19 economic operational life left” and requires those facilities to shut down without retrofits. Duckworth’s office estimated that the program would apply to only eight to 10 existing plants.

But some energy industry analysts say that equipping any coal power stations with carbon capture retrofits is a bad investment. 

“Coal is already economically uncompetitive as a power source with natural gas and renewables in most places, so adding a huge cost for doing carbon capture on coal plants doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” said Seth Feaster, an analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a nonprofit research group. “Especially when you consider that if you spent the same amount of money on renewables, you would get zero carbon in the first place and support a new and growing industry with a lot of jobs and without the mess of coal.” 

Biden himself made a similar argument on the campaign trail in 2008, telling an activist that he only supported using carbon capture technology on coal plants in developing countries such as China. (The Obama campaign later walked the statement back, and the unity task for Biden and his erstwhile rival for the nomination Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders assembled included the technology in its climate recommendations.)

“We’re not supporting clean coal,” Biden said. “No coal plants here in America.”

Captured carbon dioxide is primarily used by oil companies to extract the dregs of nearly exhausted wells, in a process known as enhanced oil recovery. Selling that oil can cover the cost of capturing, liquefying and pumping the CO2 underground. But the current low prices of oil and gas, driven by a supply glut, cast doubt over the viability of that usage, Feaster said. There’s also the fact that scientists say the use of oil, like coal, needs to be dramatically scaled down. 

Coal is already economically uncompetitive as a power source with natural gas and renewables in most places, so adding a huge cost for doing carbon capture on coal plants doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Seth Feaster, an analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis

There are no obvious provisions in the bill to support increased natural gas extraction in coal-producing states, and Duckworth’s office said the bill wasn’t written to provide such benefits. 

The same $15 billion fund is also available for pipeline projects to carry captured and liquefied carbon dioxide to underground storage facilities.

Pipelines to store captured CO2 in vast geological caverns could ultimately form the backbone of a new industry that would sequester emissions sucked out of the atmosphere using a nascent technology known as direct air capture ― essentially giant fan structures vacuuming carbon pollution from the air. There’s potential to use such technology in coal country. Because CO2 is evenly mixed into the atmosphere, research suggests direct air capture technology could be set up almost anywhere. Recent studies by the consultancy Rhodium Group found that, even with dramatic emissions cuts and extensive forest growth, such technology is likely necessary to keep global warming within a relatively safe range. An industry at scale could also create 300,000 jobs. 

But it would take massive federal support to even start such an industry, and the Marshall Plan for Coal Country Act makes no mention of it.

Still, the bill is “putting out a lot of good ideas” and offers “a vision to the future of what we need, something we can build on and continue the conversation,” said Thom Kay, the senior legislative representative at Appalachian Voices, an advocacy group focused on environmental restoration and anti-poverty work. 

“They’re the ones who named it the Marshall Plan, which seems like it should include everything,” Kay said. “But I don’t think it’s fair to expect this bill to include everything and the kitchen sink that’s needed for the coal community transition.”