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Here’s what Clinton really thinks about Appalachian coal country

- May 15, 2016

Editors’ note: There has recently been a controversy over Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s attitude to coal miners in Appalachia. This post, originally published in January 2016, describes her political program for coal.

If coal is becoming politically weaker, why is Hillary Clinton offering a $30 billion plan to revitalize Appalachian coal communities?

Coal is declining as the key fuel for generating electricity in the United States. For the first time in two decades, U.S. coal production fell below 1 billion short tons in 2013. The Clean Power Plan that President Obama introduced prior to Paris climate talks — if it survives legal challenge and a new president — seeks to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

That will certainly lead to still less use of coal and speed up the reduction in coal-related jobs in some of the most economically depressed regions. For reference, coal miners in West Virginia now make up only about 3 percent of the civilian labor force, although indirect employment may bring the figure up to about 7 percent.

And yet Hillary Clinton has just introduced a sizeable plan to revitalize the coal-producing Appalachia by creating new local infrastructure and by securing pensions and benefits for coal retirees.


Clinton is trying to strike a balance between two Democratic constituencies: environmentalists and people who depend on coal mining, including the unions that represent them.

She is trying to keep environmentalists happy by supporting the Clean Power Plan and other regulatory initiatives (including Obama’s denial of the Keystone XL pipeline, after some procrastination).

But she also recognizes that these regulations will hurt a sizable Democratic constituency that, if angered, can punish politicians. Research shows that organized groups like the United Mineworkers tend to punch much above their weight (compared with the size of the constituency) in political battles. Indeed, all Republican presidential candidates have come out strongly against the “job-killing” Clean Power Plan.

Clinton is balancing this clash through a strategy that we call “embedded environmentalism,” after international relations scholar John Ruggie’s arguments about “embedded liberalism” Ruggie was writing about free trade. He argued that expanding free trade creates diffused benefits for everyone, but tends to hurt specific groups that have to compete with new imports. That’s why it’s hard to get political agreement on free trade deals. Those who benefit may not be well organized, while those who are going to suffer are likely to be very well organized.

The solution to this problem between 1945 and 1970 was an approach of embedded liberalism, which bought off the opposition to free trade, by making side-payments to the policy losers.

Embedded environmentalism works in the same way. Clinton’s proposal offers “side payments” to constituencies like Appalachian coal-mining communities that will bear the concentrated costs for a global public good — slowing climate change — that will benefit everyone.

Arguably, this is how we should interpret the $30 billion Appalachian plan that she announced in November 2015. The United Mineworkers president, Cecil Roberts, stated the objections to phasing out coal very clearly in 2014, when he said the problems wouldn’t just be lost jobs, but lost pensions and retiree health-care benefits if companies collapsed — and the fact that the “green jobs” expected to replace coal mining wouldn’t be in the coalfields, and wouldn’t pay well or offer decent benefits.

Clinton’s plan responds almost point by point, promising that coal retirees will continue to receive their benefits even if coal or electricity companies declare bankruptcy. It would fund local infrastructure, like schools, that might be hurt as coal production declines. Coal communities tend to be strongly opposed to regulatory measures that hurt coal because they often don’t have the right skills and education to find good jobs elsewhere. And so Clinton’s plan would redevelop coal land by creating special economic zones.

While Clinton doesn’t explain how this plan would be funded, it’s nevertheless clever politically. But will it mollify the labor and coal constituencies?

Nives Dolšak is professor in the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington at Seattle. 

Aseem Prakash is professor of political science, Walker Family Professor, and the director of the Center for Environmental Politics at University of Washington at Seattle.