WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Thursday awarded nearly $15 million in grants to projects across 12 coal-reliant states and tribal territories to help them diversify their local economies as the domestic coal industry wanes.
The competitive grants are part of the administration's multi-agency Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) Initiative to invest in communities affected by changes in the coal mining industry and power sector.
The Department of Commerce, Department of Labor, Small Business Administration and the Appalachian Regional Commission combined resources to award their first grants to 36 projects.
"These grants will help each community create new jobs, diversify its economic portfolio and better compete in the 21st century," said Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.
The U.S. coal industry has contracted amid competition from cheap natural gas, carbon emission regulations and reduced costs for renewable energy.
The POWER Initiative aims to help affected towns, regions and states, even as some lawmakers accuse the administration of waging a "war on coal."
The agencies awarded over $3 million to support the state of Kentucky's plans to build-out broadband internet, starting in the coal-producing eastern part of the state, by investing in internet access centers and e-commerce training to local businesses and job seekers.
A substance abuse treatment project in Ashcamp, Kentucky, received $1.2 million for a new childcare and treatment center for women to deal with a rampant drug-use problem in coalfield communities.
"These federal investments will provide critical leverage for local leaders to make things happen in Appalachian communities," said Earl Gohl, chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission.
Grants have also been awarded to support tourism development in southwestern Virginia, fund a public water project in West Virginia and support a range of workforce training, public health and broadband access programs in several states, including Colorado and New Mexico.
The White House said the grants are a "down payment" on a broader Obama plan called Power + to inject $10 billion in coal communities, which he proposed in his 2016 budget.
Although some coalfield congressional Republicans favor federal help for their economies, they want to see major changes in Obama's proposal.
Jason Walsh, senior White House economic policy adviser, said the administration is working with Congress to try to get the proposal passed.
"We think that has enormous potential and we want to make sure this is done in the right way," he said.
More than a dozen Appalachian coal mining communities have passed resolutions over the past few months supporting the plan.
Reporting By Valerie Volcovici