Climate Corner: It’s time for us to reimagine Appalachia

May 29, 2021

George Banziger

Parkersburg News and Sentinel

People in the Appalachian region have for generations assumed that good-paying union jobs had to involve the sacrifice of their health–even their lives–in extractive industries such as coal. New research and new projects indicate that it does not have to be this way. There are good jobs in a reimagined Appalachia, such as those involved with capping abandoned oil and gas wells, modernizing the electricity grid, redesigning buildings and industry for energy efficiency, regenerative agriculture, clean and efficient manufacturing, a sustainable transportation system, energy storage, repurposing coal-fired power plants, and creating pathways and training programs for low-wage workers.

The officially recognized area of Appalachia, which is administered by the Appalachian Regional Commission, is comprised geographically of the area from northern Alabama and Georgia to the southern tier of New York State. It includes 13 states; West Virginia is the only state that is entirely encapsulated in the region. For decades this region has been associated with high unemployment, low educational achievement, high poverty rates, population decline, and more recently opioid abuse.

While the grip of the fossil-fuel industry in Appalachia has been quite firm in the 20th Century, this grasp has recently loosened. As coal has been recognized as a major source of greenhouse gas emissions and as other sources of energy like natural gas and renewables like wind and solar have shown market advantages, coal has been in an inexorable decline. Energy companies themselves are shifting away from coal, as coal-fired power plants in Appalachia and around the country are shut down. Many in the region and in the Congress have supported the idea that long-term support, in the form of wages and benefits as well as job training, needs to be provided for those in the coal industry who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own.

The natural gas business provides a more affordable and less polluting source of energy than coal, and some of its advocates have argued that the industrial practice of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is a promising source of jobs and economic development for the Appalachian region and specifically the Ohio Valley. So far, this vision has not been realized. “Frackalachia” is the term used to describe the region within Appalachia where fracking for oil and natural gas (mostly the latter) takes place. As noted by the Ohio River Valley Institute, the boom in the shale-gas industry provided an overall benefit to the U.S. economy but did not provide any increase in jobs, population, or economic development in the region. Only 20 cents per dollar found its way into the local economy according to this study, and during this shale-gas boom jobs were in decline.

Washington County, Ohio, has more to offer for a reimagined Appalachia than to serve as the trash heap for fracking waste; the county has one of the largest number of injection wells in the state for pumping radioactive and toxic fracking waste into the ground from Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

There are already projects in the region for a reimagined Appalachia. In Wheeling, W.Va., there are greenhouses and vertically integrated businesses in regenerative agriculture, producing locally grown crops for local consumption in facilities like greenhouses built in abandoned factories. The Solvay plant in Marietta has combined with DTE Energy for a CHP (combined heat and power) project, saving 300 jobs at Solvay and 50 at neighboring American Styrenes. Battery manufacturing for the electric vehicle industry has emerged in eastern Ohio. New Jobs Appalachia is a local effort to spark new thinking that can seize the opportunities in a renewable economy rather than turning our backs on them.

The community of Centralia, Wash., is a model of repurposed infrastructure for economic development of the 21st Century. Formally a site of a coal mine, employing 600 workers and a coal-fired power plant with 370 workers, Centralia reimagined itself with GDP gains at twice the rate of the U.S. as well as population growth. This growth was achieved through three initiatives: a weatherization fund for energy-efficiency upgrades, an economic community development fund using local labor, such as HVAC, lighting contractors, and an energy technology fund for clean energy generation. These are 21st Century businesses that provide local jobs with good wages and benefits and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and that should serve as a compelling model for our region of Appalachia.