It’s time for bold and comprehensive investments in what have traditionally been thought of as coal communities so we can build a new economy that contributes to mitigating climate change. The “infrastructure bill” currently under debate in Congress is a vehicle for such investment.
If the country cares about us here in Appalachia, then these investments are simply the right thing to do. But more pragmatically, a failure to create a new, more sustainable, and more fair economy here in West Virginia and throughout rural America will only deepen the dangerous fissures tearing our country apart. By investing in former coal areas, America can begin to unify and our planet can begin to heal.
In 2008-09, when the auto industry was in a tailspin, both the Bush and Obama Administrations combined responded with an $80 billion program to protect jobs and help the industry survive. For decades, corporate farming entities have had access to billions of dollars in subsidy culminating with an historic $60 billion plus from the Trump administration (over four years) to offset pain from the trade war with China. Yet as the coal industry faces an equally historic crisis, the government response has been woefully inadequate given the massive shifts taking place in our energy system. So far, programs for coal communities have spent only millions, rather than the billions that are needed.
Regarding the agriculture and manufacturing sectors, federal policy has been designed to prop up those industries. In comparison, most federal policy in recent years has actively sought to accelerate the decline of the coal industry. This has created deeper, more rapid, and more painful economic decline than anywhere else in the country.
Now, if we take climate change seriously (which we absolutely must), then policies designed not to favor fossil fuels are logical. Weird weather and fierce flooding leave no doubt about climate change’s wrath for us here in our hills and hollers.
Coal has been a primary contributor to environmental ruin. But that’s no more the miner’s fault than the consumer’s. All over the country, millions who have turned on lights are just as responsible for climate change as the miners who simply did their jobs. Rather than punish our region, the country should be mobilizing to honor the sacrifices made to power America’s economy and vigorously supporting us in our effort to reinvent ourselves.
The country has demanded our natural resources, but the country has not supplied us with the long-term investments necessary to enjoy the kind of wealth that bigger cities have enjoyed. Broken promises have piled up here in West Virginia, both from the public and the private sectors. Many communities still lack basic infrastructure such as clean drinking water or cell service (let alone internet access). Perhaps the most egregious promise was the false premise that the coal industry could ever again be the engine of job creation it once was.
But please understand this: Even when coal boomed, we still had some of the highest poverty rates in North America. In too many Appalachian communities, the coal miners were actually the lucky ones. They got some of the few good-paying jobs available. They kept their dignity.
The biggest possible mistake we could make would be to try and return to the coal-based economy of yesterday. The second biggest mistake would be to go small on the infrastructure bill currently under debate between Congress and the White House. Some say dealing with climate change and creating jobs here in Appalachia is not part of “real” infrastructure. Nonsense. What good will roads and bridges do us if we have to move away for lack of employment, education, and economic opportunity?
Recently, I testified before the House of Representatives Environment Committee with this exact message. I further discussed President Biden’s Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities, which recently issued an “Initial Report on Empowering Workers.” Of course, a report is only one step. But as an entrepreneur working for the past decade to rebuild the Appalachian economy, I can honestly say the proposals put forward in the report are something all Appalachians should be cheering.
Regardless of who we voted for, we can all agree our economy needs new investment. This plan would constitute a once-in-a-generation level of new investment in Appalachian places and people.
Although coal country faces its fair share of challenges, there are incredible opportunities for renewal. The organization I lead, Coalfield Development, has helped start more than 50 new businesses in southern West Virginia including a solar installation company, a sustainable agriculture cooperative, and a recycled-content manufacturer. We’ve hired former miners to reclaim former mountaintop removal sites. We’ve hired people on unemployment to revitalize abandoned buildings.
We are not seeking America’s pity. We are seeking our country’s partnership as we do the hard work of building a new economy.