The Big Idea is a series that asks top lawmakers and figures to discuss their moonshot — what’s the one proposal, if politics and polls and even price tag were not an issue, they’d implement to change the country for the better?
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., wants to give struggling coal communities a jolt of new federal investment and help transition out-of-work miners into new jobs and cleaner energy production.
Duckworth, considered a potential running mate for Joe Biden, introduced sweeping new legislation this month that gives Medicare coverage to laid-off coal workers, provides tuition-free college for coal workers and their families, calls for a $15 dollar minimum wage and modifies U.S. bankruptcy rules to require coal companies to pay for worker health care and pensions benefits.
"This is a future-forward bill that will take care of our coal miners and the legacy systems, but also realizes that there is real opportunity in coal country with the current coal miners and the coal industry to move us towards the future," Duckworth said in an interview with Fox News.
There's no cost estimate yet on her legislation, but Duckworth says it's time to think big about the untapped economic opportunities in coal communities. She calls her proposal a Marshall Plan for Coal Country, a nod to the post-World War II investment program to rebuild war-torn cities, industries and infrastructure in Western Europe.
Duckworth wants to direct investment into economically depressed coalfield communities through reviving energy development tax credits, assigning a federal grant coordinator to each community and establishing home buying incentives.
Duckworth's goal is carbon-neutral energy production in America. To help transition to greener energy, Duckworth wants to help existing coal power plants reduce emissions through new technology. Her legislation would subsidize carbon capture capabilities for any coal power plant with at least eight years of operational life left and provide loans for building pipelines to carry the captured carbon to "geologic repositories" found in places like her home state of Illinois.
Help couldn't come soon enough for major coal-producing states like Wyoming, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Kentucky.
The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the downturn of the coal industry, which was already stressed amid competition from cheap natural gas and expanded renewable energy sources.
Duckworth discussed her Big Idea with Fox News. This interview has been lightly edited.
Q: What is your big idea?
Duckworth: My big idea is a Marshall Plan for coal country. It basically is a plan for how we revitalize those parts of the nation that for decades provided the energy that we use to industrialize our nation but now are starting to be left behind as our energy needs are altering. We have built our country on the energy and the sacrifices made by coal country and coal miners. And it's time to reinvest in these parts of the country, because I think that reinvestment will actually help our nation grow and prosper well into the future.
Q: Your legislation includes Medicare for all former coal workers, free higher education for former miners and their families, increasing the federal minimum wage to $15/hour, providing coal plants with federally subsidized carbon capture capabilities, federal economic assistance for coal communities, help for coal plants to be decommissioned and more. Describe the scale and scope of your vision?
Duckworth: My plan has several components. One, we have to take care of the coal miners who have been doing the job, providing our nation with the necessary energy for decades. Now we have to take care of health care. We have to make sure that we invest in them and their children for the future with free tuition and training for new technologies.
But I also want to make sure that we make the investments into the entire community. It's not just about the individual coal miner. It's about coal country and the community. And in fact, coal mining is actually a pretty technologically complex field right now. And so these folks have really good skill sets that could be transferred into other industries.
We need to attract new types of industries into coal country. And that's where the federal government can play a role with everything that we do to incentivize folks to move businesses into the area and to also provide investments in things like carbon capture sequestration, in clean coal, and then moving towards alternative forms of energy. Carbon-neutral energies of the future could be located in coal country because we already have people there who are very well trained and technological experts in this field.
Q: Do think the federal government should be doing more at this point to reduce the need for coal?
Duckworth: I think the federal government should be doing more to invest in the transitional technologies. Look, the rest of the world is still going to be using coal. Even as we move away from coal in this country, there will be other countries in the world that will be using coal. I want America to be in charge of the clean coal technology and of the carbon capture sequestration technology because I want America to sell that technology overseas.
And so, if there's going to be coal being burned around the globe, then I want us to be selling the technology that would move us towards a carbon-neutral future. The Marshall Plan for Coal Country is about taking care of the legacy of the coal industry as it was. But it's also about understanding the opportunity that exists in these communities with hardworking people, with people who are very much technologically tuned into energy production and what we can do towards the future. And I think it's a potential win for our nation to make these investments now, because then we can actually be the global leader in the technologies that will come in the future that can be located in coal country.
Q: What are the biggest challenges in getting this legislation passed?
Duckworth: The biggest challenges are getting people to understand it is a very comprehensive, large package -- a moonshot type of a thing. When people talk about coal, we fight over how much money we should put aside for coal miners. We talked about how much money we should put aside to treat black lung disease. But what I'm saying is this is a future-forward bill that will take care of our coal miners and the legacy systems, but also realizes that there is real opportunity in coal country with the current coal miners and the coal industry to move us towards the future. And if we're going to be shutting down coal-fired plants, then we should be investing in the next technologies that should be coming out of these parts of the country.
Every time I talk to coal miners, they say, listen, I can do anything. I'm mechanically inclined, just put me to work at it, give me a little extra training and I can do that. But don't leave my entire community behind. Don't just invest in me, invest in my community. And I think this is also an investment in America if we were to go ahead and move forward with my Marshall Plan for Coal Country.
Q: Have you seen examples of a particular coal community that you think has transitioned successfully? Or is the problem that the transition can't happen without this grand plan?
Duckworth: That's the problem, right? We're not seeing that moving forward because what happens is that we've not incentivized people to make those investments back into these communities. But I have seen, for example, work that is being done on a carbon capture sequestration in some of these communities that show a lot of promise that can be a very viable and profitable technology as we move forward, not just for the United States, but also for other nations around the world. We can be the ones selling the technology to other countries as well. So the carbon capture sequestration is something I'm very interested in, as well as developing other types of energies that will move us toward a carbon-neutral future. But again, we can't do that without making the investments in the communities. That's why we have to make sure that we don't lose these high-skilled workers and the high paying jobs that are in coal country now.
Q: Decommissioning these coal-powered plants and transitioning to new energy, do you view this as an environmental justice issue?
Duckworth: I do view this as an environmental justice issue as well. I think that the future for energy in this country needs to be very neutral. The type of energy we use needs to get us moving towards a carbon-neutral future. And yes, we cannot leave these communities with the detritus of the past activities. We have to invest in these communities and make sure that we bring development back into the communities and a future for their kids and grandkids. These are some very beautiful parts of the country. But really, we've also been dumping a lot of toxic chemicals in some of these communities. We have to invest in cleaning those up, while we also invest in technologies for new forms of energy that can come out of the same area.