Climate Corner: Transition from exploitation to sustainability

Mar 16, 2024

George Banziger

The exploitation of Appalachia by outsiders goes all the way back to the days of George Washington, who, prior to serving as our first president, surveyed the lands around the Ohio River for development and ownership by the eastern colonists. Then, in the 1800s, as Steven Stool described in his 2017 book, “Ramp Hollow,” outsiders extracted lumber and coal from the Appalachian forests. One of the justifications for this exploitation was the disparagement of the residents of these areas as degenerate, backward, and ignorant. Fast forward to the 21st Century, and we witness the false promise of natural gas being extracted from the Utica and Marcellus shale deposits and the profits once again going mainly to outsiders.

Many of us who reside in the Mid-Ohio Valley, which is part of the federally designated region of Appalachia (Appalachian Regional Commission) see the need for a transformative economy in West Virginia and eastern Ohio. For many years we have been promised that economic development, jobs, and prosperity would result from the extractive industries of coal, oil, and natural gas and from the profits that these industries generated.

But where are the profits, jobs, and prosperity from these industries going and how much benefit to the Appalachian region accrues from these investments? In a study done by the Ohio River Valley Institute (July 2021) it was reported that from 2008-2019 in the 22 counties in Ohio, in western Pennsylvania, and in West Virginia, which produce 90% of the natural gas in Appalachia, economic prosperity, in terms of jobs, income, and population growth, trailed the U.S. measures of these factors. In that period the number of jobs increased just 1.6%, eight percentage points below the U.S. figure, and personal income was one-third below the national average. The demographics of our region continue to show decline of population as young people choose to leave. In other words, little revenue or benefit from all this activity with natural gas has come to the region. Natural gas extraction and plastics manufacturing are capital-intensive enterprises. What is needed for job creation and sustained prosperity in the region is activity that is labor-intensive and that produces wealth which remains in the region.

Organizations like ReImagine Appalachia and the Ohio River Valley Institute (ORVI) have provided factually based information about the economy in central Appalachia and ideas for what kind of sustainable growth can be achieved. Other groups such as the regional chapters of the Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL) are advocating for federal policies that promote such change toward a transformative economy. And Mid-Ohio Climate Action gives a local voice to these efforts.

There are many opportunities for economic development in Appalachia, even in manufacturing, which can serve as alternatives to extractive industries. Biomaterials, such as hemp, which can be readily grown in the region, can serve as an alternative to plastics. Production of batteries for vehicles which reduce greenhouse gas emissions is another promising idea. “Green steel,” (Power Technology, 2024) made with green hydrogen energy and transported with renewable energy is an option to traditional steel manufacturing. Locating and capping abandoned oil & gas wells can provide many jobs in the region (32,000 such jobs according to ORVI). Controlling methane emissions can generate 155,000 direct sustainable jobs in the region, according to a recent report by ORVI. There are now more jobs in the solar and wind industries in Ohio than in the coal industry (U.S. Energy & Jobs Report, U.S. Department of Energy, 2023). Research on the use of coal tailings to produce rare-earth metals, which are used in electric vehicles and other modern applications, is producing promising results. Parts for wind turbines can be manufactured in Appalachia. Hydrogen, produced from electrolysis, can be developed as a cleaner, safer, and less expensive alternative to coal for electricity production.

Appalachian communities where economic investments are being made should be assured that their communities will receive long-term benefits from any major investments in their areas including the following: that local labor will be hired on construction and manufacturing jobs (to be paid at prevailing wages), that environmental standards will be applied (e.g., clean air and clean water), and that green space and affordable housing will be provided. These assurances have been formalized into community benefit agreements, now a requirement for grant-funded projects supported by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Job-training programs are being developed in Appalachia for those who have been involved with the criminal justice system, through drug-related crimes, and those in drug-treatment programs. These efforts seek to address one of the critical endemic social problems of Appalachia.


George Banziger, Ph.D., was a faculty member at Marietta College and an academic dean at three other colleges. He is a member of the Green Sanctuary Committee of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Marietta, Citizens Climate Lobby, and of the Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action team.