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Senate tries to help old fossil fuel towns

Mar 14, 2024
Abandoned buildings in West Virginia town

A stretch of mostly abandoned buildings in 2022 in Welch, W.Va. Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

The Senate is advancing a bill to boost a little-known agency that could make a big difference for coal country and small communities seeking energy money.

Why it matters: The Economic Development Administration hasn't been reauthorized for 20 years. Expanding its mission now could help under-resourced rural areas grab the federal cash on the table from the IRA and IIJA.

  • Because there's no House companion, "we're going to try to work it to the floor, or maybe we attach it to something and then see what the House wants to do," Sen. Shelley Moore Capito told Axios.

Driving the news: The Environment and Public Works Committee this week moved a bipartisan EDA reauthorization bill by voice vote. (The agency has been operating without explicit authorization since its last one lapsed in 2008.)

  • The bill would broaden EDA's grant programs for former coal communities to let the agency assist areas that have lost a power plant or mine in the last 25 years.
  • It would support steel and nuclear host communities and expand EDA's solar program to allow it to site other types of renewable power projects at brownfield sites.
  • It also includes portions of Sen. Ed Markey's LIFT Act to help communities with technical assistance and project pre-development activities.

Between the lines: Those provisions are meant to help rural communities without many resources take advantage of grant funding and attract projects getting money under the IRA, the infrastructure law and the CHIPS Act.

  • "That capacity-building at the county level to create the conditions in which federal investment can follow is really important," said Mark Ritacco, chief government affairs officer for the National Association of Counties.
  • The job training provisions in the bill would "directly link employers with the workforce they need," an EDA official told Axios.

Zoom in: The EDA is also an important conduit for disaster relief, with Congress sending billions through the agency in recent years via supplementals and COVID relief packages.

  • The bill would establish a new Office of Disaster Recovery and Resilience and includes language expanding EDA's role in extreme weather adaptation and resilience.
  • The new office is "really important to counties because we are seeing … that the incidence of natural disasters is increasing and have had wide-ranging impacts on our finance and operations," Ritacco said.

Our thought bubble: We've written a couple times about Congress' inaction in steering former fossil fuel communities through the energy transition. This is a step in that direction.

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