President Donald Trump and his political backers have ignored the possibilities of economic diversification beyond coal in Appalachia. During his two years in office, Trump has claimed the coal industry will stage a major comeback under his leadership.
But community groups in Appalachia disagree with Trump. As the president remains fixated on helping the coal industry — which donated to his campaign — leaders of several nonprofit organizations believe a massive federal program that emphasizes economic diversity will help to revitalize communities in Appalachia ravaged by the downturn in the coal industry over the past several decades.
“The coal industry will never again be the dominant industry it once was,” Brandon Dennison, founder and chief executive of Coalfield Development Corp. in Wayne, West Virginia, said Tuesday in testimony at a hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources. “But the fact that coal isn’t coming back doesn’t mean that Appalachia has no future.”
Since the 1950s, the coal industry has declined as a major employer in Central Appalachia — where the vast majority of the region’s coal is mined — primarily due to mechanization and the development of richer coal seams elsewhere in the country. But coal’s decline accelerated after 2012 as the industry struggled to compete with natural gas as a power generation fuel.
In an effort to revive the aging industry, Trump’s Energy Department has drawn up plans to provide government subsidies to coal-fired power plants. The president’s Environmental Protection Agency is also doing its part to help the coal industry by gutting environmental regulations that protect the public from the harmful impacts of coal production and combustion.
In contrast to Trump’s promise to bring back coal jobs, Coalfield Development Corp. is taking a realistic approach through its mission to build a new economy based on clean energy and sustainable land use in Appalachia.
“Our leaders hold us back from realizing our bright future when they promise coal will return,” Dennison said at the hearing, titled “Climate Change: Preparing for the Energy Transition.”
Refusing to let go of the past “only dampens the latent entrepreneurial spirit that lies dormant among our hills and hollers. But that spirit is there,” he said.
The void left by coal’s collapse, Dennison emphasized, is actually making room for new entrepreneurs in the region with visions of clean energy development and repairing the environmental damage left by the coal industry. “And Appalachia can be a vital contributor in the fight against climate change,” he said.
Studies have shown that “natural climate solutions,” such as growing taller trees, improving soil health, protecting grasslands and restoring coastal wetlands, can amount to 37 percent of the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere needed in the next few decades. West Virginia is the third most forested state in the U.S., so there is massive potential to contribute to these natural climate solutions, Dennison said.
Business leaders in Appalachia, however, still refuse to consider alternatives to fossil fuel production in Appalachia and warn against climate action that could further harm West Virginia’s coal industry.
Bill Bissett, president and chief executive of the Huntington (WV) Regional Chamber of Commerce, told lawmakers at Tuesday’s hearing that efforts to fight climate change will inflict even more damage on West Virginia’s economy. Bissett served as president of the Kentucky Coal Association from 2010 to 2016.
“As many of us Appalachians try to tell our story beyond our borders, we worry about the future of our region and how impediments to our ability to produce natural resources will return us to what was a very dark time in my home state and in Appalachia,” Bissett said. “As climate change is a global issue, we must consider its impact in a global way, and with a global solution.”
Sacrificing the economic future of West Virginia and Appalachia “will have little impact on global manmade carbon, but you will succeed in creating more poverty, more hopelessness, and an uncertain future” in West Virginia, he said.
Many parts of Appalachia, though, have suffered from extreme poverty and hopelessness for generations, even during the heyday of coal production. Since the dawn of the coal age, Kentucky and West Virginia have been two of the poorest states, despite the great wealth that generations of miners created for the owners of the coal companies.
In recent years, as natural gas prices began to drop in the late 2000s, Kentucky started to lose many of its coal jobs. The collapse of the coal industry was a tragedy for coal miners, local businesses, and local governments’ budgets, said Peter Hille, president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development in Berea, Kentucky.
But the question, Hille said, is not how to bring back the 10,000 Kentucky coal industry jobs lost over the past decade.
“The question is how do we go forward, how do we build a new economy for Appalachia and for other coal impacted communities — an economy that is more diverse, resilient, sustainable and equitable. Because the old economy was none of those things,” Hille told lawmakers.
According to Dennison, Congress should immediately act to create a national “just transition” task force. “A smart, just, and fair transition away from coal will be difficult, and the transition will affect the entire country, in places where coal mining and coal plants are closing. While Appalachia has been first and hardest hit, other regions aren’t far behind,” he said in his testimony.
Proponents of the Green New Deal, a plan to avoid to avoid catastrophic impacts of climate change, similarly insist a “just transition” is required for workers who are employed by the fossil fuel sector.
Last Thursday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced a new climate change resolution that aims to incorporate many of the elements of a Green New Deal championed by Ocasio-Cortez and the youth-led nonprofit Sunrise Movement since the midterm elections.
The resolution states it is the duty of the federal government to create a plan that would “achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers.”
Four years ago, under President Barack Obama, the federal government introduced the Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) initiative, which focused on economic development and diversification in Appalachia. Along with a focus on creating new jobs, the initiative emphasized diversifying and strengthening local economies so they could become more resilient.
While pieces of this original POWER program still exist, total funding allocations are small. According to Dennison, Congress should immediately put resources to work, and build off of the work of the Appalachian Regional Commission — a federal-state partnership focused on economic development in the region — which has awarded more than $120 million in grants since 2015 on programs that aim to diversify the region’s economy.
“In places like West Virginia, we put all our eggs in to one basket — ironically made of coal,” Dennison said in his testimony. “Relying too heavily on one industry is how we ended up with some of the highest poverty rates in the country.”
“The right solution isn’t to find one new industry,” he continued, “but to support entrepreneurs and new businesses in a diversified number of financially, environmentally, and socially sustainable fields.”
Dennison also warned lawmakers to be careful with how they tout retraining programs for former coal miners as a solution to Appalachia’s problems.
“Too often when discussing economic transitions, policymakers announce that we can just retrain those people. And I do need to say that that’s way easier said than done,” Dennison said.
Hundreds of laid-off coal miners have gotten certified in new work trades. “But it doesn’t matter because there are not many businesses outside the coal industry and therefore not many jobs to be entered with that new certification,” Dennison said.
Also problematic is when policymakers suggest that former coal industry workers should move from their homes to find new jobs. Such comments ignore “the value of community and culture and identity,” he said. The economic realities of “land-poor” homeowners, he explained, also makes it unaffordable for them to relocate to high-cost urban areas.