Federal economic development initiative to invest $300 million in coal communities

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Three months after a federal work group identified Southern West Virginia as the area of the country most in need of focused federal investment because of its high dependence on coal and coal power plant jobs, the feds have announced a $300 million investment in coal communities nationwide.

The U.S. Economic Development Administration has allocated $300 million of its $3 billion appropriation under the COVID-19 relief package that President Joe Biden signed into law in March to support coal communities.

The $300 million investment announced Thursday includes $100 million made available through a program that invites regional coalitions to apply for funding to implement projects that are part of a cohesive regional development strategy. That program is the Build Back Better Regional Challenge, which is designed to grow regional industry clusters.

Entities may only apply for those funds as part of a regional coalition.

The suggested application submission date is March 15, 2022, but applications will be reviewed on a rolling basis. Individuals and for-profit entities are not eligible.

The other $200 million will be awarded through a more flexible Economic Development Administration program that supports a wide variety of construction and non-construction economic development projects.

The Economic Development Administration, a bureau within the Department of Commerce, says there is no pre-defined list of affected coal communities.

But the interagency working group that identified West Virginia’s southern coalfields as the neediest for federal support came up with such a list this spring.

Co-chaired by National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy and administered by Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, the group released a report in April that identified the 25 areas of the country most affected by coal-related declines.

Five of them are in West Virginia: Southern West Virginia nonmetropolitan (No. 1); Wheeling (No. 3); Northern West Virginia nonmetropolitan (No. 11); Beckley (No. 23); and Charleston (No. 24). Eastern Kentucky nonmetropolitan and Southwest Virginia are No. 2 and No. 4, respectively.

Existing federal programs, with potentially available funding totaling nearly $38 billion, could be used to provide immediate investments in those areas, the report notes. That could include grant funding for infrastructure projects, low-carbon technology innovation resources, and financing programs for abandoned mine land and orphaned oil and gas well remediation in that total.

Biden created the Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization in January, a week after taking office, via an executive order aimed at addressing the climate crisis.

The group’s executive director is Brian Anderson, a longtime West Virginia resident and director of the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, which focuses on environmental sustainability.

U.S. coal mining employment plummeted from more than 175,000 in 1985 to roughly 40,000 in 2020 — a 77% drop — according to the group’s report.

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