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April 11, 2021

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In Our View: Biden infrastructure plan takes right tack on coal

The Columbian
Published:

The details of President Joe Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal are still to be revealed. After that, the plan undoubtedly will generate much debate in Congress and among the public.

In the meantime, allow us to focus for a moment on one relatively minor aspect of the ambitious proposal. Amid a broad outline for shoring up the United States’ roads, bridges, ports, airports, energy grids, water treatment systems and other facilities that are essential to an advanced civilization, there is an interesting approach to fossil fuels – particularly coal.

Biden’s plan includes $16 billion to plug old oil and gas wells and clean up abandoned mines. As the Associated Press reports, thousands of “orphaned” wells – so named because no owner can be found – and abandoned coal and hardrock mines pose safety hazards and cause ongoing environmental damage through emissions.

Many of those are located in rural communities where the economy has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. In one example, Biden has said he wants to put pipefitters and miners to work capping wells “at the same price that they would charge to dig those wells.”

Whether the proposal is workable and Congress approves remains to be seen. But it reflects a welcome, forward-thinking vision for this nation, its environment and its energy production.

Despite former President Donald Trump’s frequent proclamations, coal is not making a comeback. The environmental degradation caused by extraction industries and the climate implications of burning fossil fuel make it clear that the U.S. must be the global leader in renewable energy.

S&P Global reported in November that coal mining employment had declined 24 percent since the first quarter of 2017, when Trump took office, and coal production had declined 32 percent. This despite four years of Trump giving lip service to reviving the industry.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world was moving forward. Vox.com reports: “Last year, Germany established itself as a model when it passed two laws committing to completely phasing out coal power and providing $47.3 billion in funding to help coal regions like Lusatia diversify their economies.”

But in the United States? “It’s been four years of wandering in the wilderness, honestly, and watching other countries figure it out,” said Lee Anderson, the director of government affairs for the Utility Workers Union of America.

The issue will revive arguments about the federal government’s role in promoting specific sectors of the economy and in providing assistance for affected industries. But the free market has made its determination when it comes to coal; it has turned its back on the longtime engine of the U.S. energy industry.

That is just one aspect of Biden’s broad proposal. But it is important in representing a vision for the future and recognizing the need to help impacted regions.

During Trump’s time in office, federal investments on roads and bridges remained stagnant, and spending on water infrastructure fell to a 30-year low. Infrastructure disinvestment did not start with the Trump administration, but the need has grown more urgent over the past four years.

Biden has proposed paying for his plan by rolling back corporate tax cuts enacted at the end of 2017. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell already has said his party will oppose any bill funded by corporate tax increases.

That is predictable, but short-sighted. It is time for America to invest in itself, and Biden has provided a blueprint for Congress to build upon.

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