A COVID-19 Response for Rural America

As Congress shapes the latest round of COVID-19 response legislation, our government must invest funds in the future that America needs. We’ve worked with our members to build a recovery roadmap we’re calling, “A COVID-19 Response for a Resilient Rural America” that doubles down on the homegrown solutions we’ve supported for years—policies that prioritize family farms; build resilient local food and energy systems; protect our air, water, and health; clean-up our lands and waters; and strengthen our democracy. Our roadmap includes specific policies designed to change course and set ourselves up for more resilient economies and communities in the years to come. 

TELL CONGRESS: We need a recovery for the people of rural America, not multinational corporations.

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing both an unparalleled public health crisis and an unavoidable economic downturn that demands unprecedented action from the federal government. The scale and depth of both the crisis itself and the response that is required will shape our society for years to come, providing an opening for policymakers to work to not merely offset the worst economic impacts of the pandemic, but to strengthen our nation, so that a more just and resilient America emerges from this crisis. 

The pandemic has focused the attention of the nation and the world on the challenges low-income and people of color face all the time, including access to health care, work, housing, food and energy, and has vastly expanded and intensified the number of people facing these challenges. In the West, many of the deepest pockets of poverty are in chronically under-resourced communities in Indian Country, and these communities and other low-income communities are experiencing disproportionate impacts from the pandemic. The family farms and ranches and other small businesses that provide the backbone of rural areas are seeing an unprecedented collapse in revenue. And, new research linking higher coronavirus deaths to increases in air pollution dramatically underscores the value of clean air and water to us all. 

As policymakers take further steps to provide immediate relief and economic recovery, it is imperative that response funds and programs are focused on those who are most in need and oversight mechanisms are created to ensure transparency and accountability. Congress and the administration now has a unique opportunity to lay the groundwork for a more equitable and resilient future, one that strengthens the fabric of our democracy and our economy by addressing the interrelated crises of inequality of wealth, prosperity and opportunity, and ecological decline. 

Toward these ends, the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) calls for federal COVID-19 actions to include the following goals and proposals. In addition to immediate pandemic response and economic relief, we also propose a number of policies that will make longer-term systemic changes to expand the resilience of western communities. We recognize that these measures are not comprehensive, and offer them based on our network’s primary areas of expertise, for consideration along with proposals by many others. 

Protect Workers, and Guarantee Food and Energy Security

The pandemic is already resulting in the widespread loss of wages and jobs across the country, and will disproportionately impact low-income families. As these losses impact the ability of families to pay their bills, ensuring access to food, electricity and running water needs to be a top priority for policymakers. For the essential workers who are on the front lines of the pandemic, policymakers need to do whatever it takes to enforce guidelines that protect workers’ health.

  1. Enforce the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, providing essential workers with personal protective equipment and ensuring social distancing on the job to the maximum extent possible, including for meatpacking plant workers, farmworkers and other food chain workers. 
  1. Expand funding for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance; Women, Infants and Children; remove barriers to access, and provide greater flexibility to deliver food and support to those who need it. Special attention should be given to ensuring consistent delivery of services in rural areas and tribal nations, and the continuation of school-provided food programs for in-need children and families during the pandemic. 
  1. Establish an emergency directive to all utility providers, suspending all electricity and water shut-offs for all households and small businesses, waiving all late-payment charges, and reinstating any services that have already been cut off due to nonpayment. 
  1. Increase emergency funding by $4.3 billion to the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program so that an additional 11 million households can pay their utility bills. This proposal is an extension of the additional funding provided to LIHEAP in the CARES Act, and is crucial to cover both the newly unemployed and financially impacted households. This measure will also help utilities financially and allow them to continue operations during this crisis. 
  1. Over the long-term, energy and economic security should be enhanced by setting a national goal for significantly increased deployment of energy efficiency retrofits and distributed renewable energy systems for all low-income and other communities across the country, including rural areas and tribal nations. 

Rapidly Accelerate Clean, Renewable Energy

Renewable energy saves money for households and businesses, reduces pollution caused by fossil fuel production and burning, and distributed systems can provide enhanced reliability. Energy efficiency creates more jobs locally than any other energy sector, and can dramatically lower energy bills for residents and small businesses. With federal support, the renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors can overcome the impacts of the pandemic and provide a cornerstone for a broader, national employment initiative and provide immediate economic relief for families. Programs and funding should focus on traditionally under-served populations first and foremost, including Native, low-income, rural, and non-white communities. 

  1. Extend the start construction and safe harbor deadlines for renewable energy tax credits to help the renewable energy sector overcome the impacts of the pandemic, and extend and expand renewable energy tax credits (See H.R. 4186) and energy storage tax credit (See H.R. 2096/S. 1142). 
  1. Increase funding and create new financing programs to make solar installations more affordable and accessible for low-income households. (See H.R. 4291/S. 2462)
  1. Extend, expand and update tax credits for energy efficient commercial buildings and homes. (See H.R. 3051, H.R. 4317, H.R. 5160) Incentivize the use of efficiency technologies that are commercially available today, can be widely deployed across the country, and quickly pay for themselves through energy savings. (See H.R. 3962/S. 2137
  1. Expand funding for USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program, which provides energy audits and grants to rural small businesses and agricultural operations. 

Ensure Robust and Resilient Family Farms and Local Food Systems

Even before the pandemic, many farmers, ranchers, fishermen and food producers were already struggling due to years of low prices, market volatility due to trade disputes, frequent natural disasters, and climate disruption. The pandemic further illuminates the importance of self-sufficiency in the food system. These recommendations aim to ensure that no farmer loses their farm because of the crisis sparked by COVID-19, and to rebuild a farm and food system that provides fair prices to farmers and ranchers through a competitive marketplace. 

  1. Explicitly include local farm and food businesses in all pandemic-related small business, workforce and emergency payments/loan programs, including funding for worker retention and paid sick leave. 
  1. Ensure a fair price for cattle to small and mid-sized independent ranchers facing an unprecedented drop in prices. (See S. 3552)
  1. Expand funding for local food systems, through initiatives such as the Local Agriculture Market Program, which provides support for farmers markets, value-added agriculture, processing facilities, and other infrastructure, and give USDA flexibility during the pandemic, including extending grant deadlines and removing matching fund requirements. 
  1. Prohibit crisis profiteering and corporate consolidation by enacting an immediate moratorium on mergers and acquisitions in the food and agriculture sectors, and enforcing antitrust laws to stop anti-competitive conduct in agriculture markets. Cattle markets should be investigated immediately by antitrust regulators. (See S. 1596)
  1. Over the longer term, enact policies that support transparency and fair prices to producers, and resilient food systems, including: 
    1. Increase transparency in the food system and allow eaters to support American farmers, ranchers, and fishermen by reinstating and expanding mandatory Country of Origin Labeling for meat, dairy and seafood. (see S. 3221)
    2. Support fair agricultural contracts, producers’ rights and competitive markets by reissuing and finalizing the USDA Farmer Fair Practice Rules (see S. 3221), and requiring that livestock contracts include a fixed base price and be offered for a public bid
    3. Expand financial support and establish appropriate regulations for small and mid-sized independent meatpacking facilities (H.R. 2859). 

Prioritize Worker Wellbeing, Create Reclamation Jobs, and Clean Up Lands and Waters

In the face of a sustained decline of the coal industry and multi-year volatility in the oil and gas industry, federal intervention in these sectors should be focused on workers and communities, and not attempt to bail out and shore up extractive industries. The restoration economy can provide immediate jobs for workers, as well as long-term community benefits through clean air, water and land. 

  1. Fully fund legacy coal and hardrock mine, and oil and gas field reclamation projects, through both expedited existing funds and new federal funds, including: 
    1. Coal mine reclamation: Expedite the use of existing funds in the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) Fund to reclaim abandoned mines and stimulate economic development on reclaimed land. (See H.R. 2156) Reauthorize the AML fund, extending the excise tax on coal for 15 years to ensure cleanup of legacy mine sites. (See H.R. 4248)
    2. Hardrock mine reclamation: Invest stimulus funds towards the assessment, reclamation, and cleanup of abandoned hardrock mines on Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and tribal lands. (See H.R. 2579/S. 1386 reclamation fund model)
    3. Oil and gas reclamation: Expand funding to expedite reclamation of federal orphaned wells. 
  1. Continue to require full and timely payment of royalties, rentals and fees on federal mineral leases and production. Mineral royalties are one of the largest non-tax sources of income to the federal treasury, half of which is distributed to states where extraction takes place. The coronavirus-related decline in energy consumption will lead coal, oil, and gas companies to lay off workers, limiting the effectiveness of royalty relief for the purposes of job retention.
  1. Protect active and retired coal miners with black lung disease, who are disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19:
    1. Extend the current black lung tax on coal production for 10 years, to fund the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which the Government Accountability Office estimates will be more than $15 billion in debt by 2050. (See H.R. 3876/S. 3172)
    2. Increase appropriations to federally funded black lung clinics to ensure that they have proper staffing levels and supplies to deal with the pandemic. 
  1. Ensure the continued enforcement of air pollution, water pollution, hazardous waste, and other environmental laws that protect public. Compliance with air emission standards and leak detection and repair requirements save lives, and must remain in force during this global pandemic. 
    1. Rescind the directives contained in EPA’s March 26 “COVID-19 Implications for EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Program” memo, which stated EPA will “not seek penalties for noncompliance” if companies cite the pandemic as the reason for an indefinite period of time.
  1. Over the long-term, enact common sense policies that protect against the creation of new abandoned mines and orphaned wells, including: 
    1. Eliminate self-bonding for coal companies, ensuring that future coal bonding is done responsibly, without leaving taxpayers on the hook for covering missing funds, should a self-bonded coal company liquidate before completing reclamation. (See H.R. 4435)
    2. Increase the minimum reclamation bond amounts that oil and gas developers must post before being allowed to drill federal wells, so that bond amounts better reflect the true cost of reclamation and account for inflation. (See H.R. 4346)
    3. Establish a marginal tax on oil and gas production in order to obtain sufficient funds to reclaim orphaned wells in the future. (See GAO-19-615)
    4. Reform the 1872 Mining Law to require hardrock mining companies to pay a royalty for operating on public lands; create a reclamation fund for clean-up needs; and end the preferred status that hardrock mining enjoys on public lands over other uses. (See H.R. 2579)

Strengthen Our Democratic Process

Americans must not be forced to choose between exercising their rights to participate in government decision-making and protecting public health. Right now, due to the cancellation of public meetings and stay-at-home orders, millions of low-income and rural Americans, along with tribal nations with whom the government is obligated by law to consult, are entirely without or have limited access to public processes, including voting. Many rural communities lack reliable broadband access to participate in online comment periods or virtual public meetings when libraries, community centers, and other public places are restricting their public hours or are closed to the public altogether. 

  1. Support states by providing funding and technical support where needed, to ensure that every voter can vote safely in primary and general elections, including by expanding vote by mail, online or automatic voter registration. 
  1. Fully support and resource the 2020 Census to achieve an accurate and safe count under the new and evolving conditions. 
  1. Protect Americans’ right to participate in and comment upon federal decision-making and major projects: 
    1. Require all federal agencies to extend all open or announced upcoming public comment periods for rulemakings and administrative actions not related to the COVID-19 pandemic response for a reasonable period after the Administration’s declaration of a National Emergency has been lifted, or pause any new agency rulemakings not required for the COVID-19 response and recovery. 
    2. Withdraw the proposed new National Environmental Policy Act rules that would weaken public participation and reduce consideration of environmental and health outcomes. (See Docket #CEQ-2019-0003)
  1. Over the long-term, increase rural and tribal broadband access to ensure all communities have access to public participation and employment opportunities that are only available online. 

TELL CONGRESS: We need a recovery for the people of rural America, not multinational corporations.

Learn more:

Organizing in a World of Physical Distancing and Social Solidarity

Rural Electric Co-ops and Public Utilities Should Halt all Disconnects During COVID-19

EPA Endangers Public Health During Global Pandemic by Suspending Enforcement of Pollution Rules

Coal Lobbyists are Using the COVID-19 Crisis as an Excuse to Dump Obligations to Rural Communities

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