Quantcast
Popular
Closed coal mine in Boone County, West Virginia. WVPB/ Janet Kunicki

Coal Will Not Bring Appalachia Back to Life, But Tech and Government Jobs Could

It was supposed to be all about jobs. When the president announced his intent to abandon the Clean Power Plan this spring and then withdraw from the Paris agreement this summer, one of the biggest reasons cited was to protect the coal jobs sustaining communities in places like Appalachia.

There's just one problem. Whatever the White House says, coal jobs are in a terminal decline and whatever cynics claim, it's not some cabal of heartless environmentalists to blame. It's the power industry itself, driven by advances in technology and simple market forces.


But the who or what's responsible matter less than the who's left behind as coal communities in Appalachia try to figure out another way forward as jobs disappear. Especially as politicians seem more than happy to invoke them in grandstanding statements without actually doing much for them on the ground.

So as the administration this week announced a new plan that seems designed to prop up failing coal CEOs and companies rather than actually care for the communities they claim to fight for, we ask a simple question the government really should be asking: Can Appalachia thrive without coal?

The answer, we believe, is "Yes."

A Changing Energy Landscape

One of the most important factors in the decline of U.S. coal isn't regulation, but market forces. As renewable energy technologies like solar and wind have become cost competitive with fossil fuels, demand for coal has waned in the power sector. In 2006, coal provided 49 percent of U.S. electricity; just 10 years later, that number had fallen to 30 percent. Beyond collapsing demand, across the last several decades, automated technologies like rock crushers and shovel swings have replaced miners, leading to steady employment declines dating back to the early 1980s. In 1979, there were 250,000 coal miners in the U.S. In 2016, only 53,000 workers held the same position.

"There's almost zero reason to be completely optimistic," Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy, told Time earlier this year. "It's a disservice to coal-mining communities to tell them they will have a mighty comeback."

Where Are We Talking About?

The Appalachian region covers nearly 205,000 square miles and includes all of West Virginia and parts of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. It's home to more than 25 million Americans.

And it is a region in crisis. Appalachia is ground zero for the opioid epidemic ravaging the U.S. Poverty is pervasive—South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, West Virginia and Mississippi all fall in the bottom 10 in per capita income in the U.S. Those same states also fall in the bottom 10 in terms of educational attainment—save for South Carolina, which ranks just outside the bottom 10 at number 39.

These issues coupled with an absence of good-paying jobs has led to an exodus of high-performing students and skilled tradesmen from the region. Those who can leave often do, and they don't come back—a phenomenon often referred to as "brain drain."

So, how do we combat these troubling trends? The answer cannot be found in the region's past and the dirty, dangerous coal that propelled its initial growth. Instead, reinvigorating one of America's most beautiful and misunderstood regions has everything to do with the future, specifically computers and public service.

'Silicon Holler'?

In some circles, the conversation on how to reinvigorate Appalachia has largely centered on bringing technological innovation to the region.

Excellent coverage on The Daily Show (below) and HBO's Vice News has centered on programs dedicated to retraining former coal miners to code. It's a natural fit: As with coding, mining requires strong problem-solving and decision-making skills, and comfort with technology (albeit a very different kind of technology). Plus, most coding jobs can be performed from almost anywhere, and Appalachia is already home to an enormous pool of talent—as Pikeville, Kentucky-based software development startup Bit Source discovered when it received nearly 1,000 applications for just 10 available positions.

Each year, 600,000 well-paying jobs in the US technology sector go unfilled, and many are eventually sent overseas. But these jobs could be on-shored—if more Americans had the right skills.

In this area, funding for programs that provide training in just those skills has largely come through the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), "a federal-state partnership that works with the people of Appalachia to create opportunities for self-sustaining economic development and improved quality of life." ARC was founded in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson as part of his "war on poverty."

Last year, in the Obama Administration's final budget, Congress approved a budget of $146 million for the agency—"its highest budget in decades, in order for it to focus on coal-impacted communities." ARC's POWER initiative specifically targets Appalachian communities affected by job losses in coal mining. In addition to supporting technological education, it awards grants for projects that improve highway and sewer systems and community health care access.

ARC programs are expected to create or retain more than 23,670 jobs as well as train and educate more than 49,000 students and workers, Reuters reported.

Unfortunately, earlier this year, the Trump Administration proposed phasing out ARC as part of its "skinny budget."

"We're making sure the Appalachia workforce is prepared for jobs," ARC Communications Director Wendy Wasserman told The Atlantic in March. According to Wasserman, ARC already has invested more than $73 million in projects across the region that include "teaching coal miners how to code, helping develop agricultural activity on former coal land, and training folks who would have been tracked into coal into solar installation or construction."

Government for the People

Vox's Matthew Yglesias made a very compelling argument that "the federal government [should] take the lead in rebalancing America's allocation of population and resources by taking a good hard look at whether so much federal activity needs to be concentrated in Washington, DC, and its suburbs."

He was arguing that this redistribution should focus on the Midwest, in part, because the poorer areas of America like Appalachia lack "the basic infrastructure of prosperity." We'd argue that he should spend some time in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Chattanooga and Knoxville, Tennessee; Charleston and Huntington, West Virginia; Birmingham and Huntsville, Alabama; and Asheville, North Carolina, and their suburbs—all of which are well-positioned for growth and could welcome government agencies as comfortably as cities like Detroit, Cleveland or Milwaukee.

Yglesias pointed to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which employs nearly 3,000 people and is located in Gaithersburg, Maryland; the Woodlawn, Maryland-centered Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (4,000 employees); and the National Weather Service, and its 5,000 employees headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland, among others, as examples of major government agencies that do not require "routine physical proximity to elected officials" and have already relocated to the DC suburbs.

Bringing these important, high-skilled jobs to Appalachia could do wonders for regional and state economies, and provide their employees with a lower cost of living. And if all those government jobs were brought to Appalachia, they'd have a trickle-down effect that would create even more jobs in the region—after all, those government employees will need doctors and dentists, carpenters, plumbers, masons and child care providers; and each of the professionals mentioned will frequent restaurants, movie theaters and grocery stores.

More jobs means more state tax revenue to fund educational and medical resources and infrastructure that would improve the overall quality of life for the entirety of Appalachia.

And importantly—and contrary to unfortunate, unfair, and plainly false stereotypes—the workforce to fill these high-skilled roles long into the future is ready and waiting in the high schools of the region's mountains and hollers.

Hope in the Hollers

Steven Palmer, an English educator in eastern Kentucky, explained as much during an uplifting 2016 TEDx Talk (below), noting that Appalachia's most valuable resource isn't coal, it's the "young, creative, critical-thinking minds that sit within its classrooms."

"We cannot continue the narrative that Appalachia is a problem without a solution," Palmer lamented. "We need to believe in our students' ability to disrupt the status quo of their homes. This can cause the largest young person-led economic revitalization in American history."

Palmer is right, of course. And it's a status quo that can be disrupted—by young people able to find good employment in their region, and by coal miners retrained to work in a twenty-first century economy, not a nineteenth-century one.

And it's a disruption that could save thousands of lives. Covering the opioid epidemic crippling communities across West Virginia, Vice writer Juliet Escoria noted that the cycle of abuse and relapse eventually has less to do with the appeal of the high itself and is instead "about figuring out how to live life without [it]."

"Relapses don't happen because someone offers you free drugs on a silver platter. They happen when the dumb s**t in life piles up, when you can't find a job or figure out how to feed yourself like a normal human being," Escoria wrote. "They happen because your brain won't stop telling you that you're a piece of s**t."

With that in mind, imagine an Appalachia where people could find well-paying jobs at all skill levels. An Appalachia were citizens knew they were contributing to their country the way they used to—only instead of providing raw materials like coal to keep the lights on, they're facilitating government services to help others and creating the websites, applications, tools and software solutions powering our plugged-in world.

So rather than dangle an unlikely return to former glories in front of the residents of these mountains, disrespecting the dignity and history of a proud people who helped build this country, let's be realistic and do everything we can to start a new chapter.

And for any DC-dweller or Bay Area local worried about what a life outside of the concrete jungle looks like, here's your new morning commute view:

Not bad, huh?

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Climate Reality Project.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Insights/Opinion
Natural pine trees can liven up Christmas and the environment when they are replanted after. Cavan Images / Getty Images

5 Ways to Have a Green Christmas (and Help the Planet)

It's pretty common this time of year to hear the song White Christmas, but at EcoWatch we want folks to have a green Christmas. With a couple of tips, you can make sure your winter festivities have a smaller carbon footprint. Here are five ways you can have a more environmentally friendly holiday.

1. Give Green Gifts
Share your love of the planet by giving gifts that are good for the environment. Need ideas? The EcoWatch staff rounded up their favorite gifts, and USA Today highlights items such as iTunes gift cards, reusable straws, organic wine and non-toxic cosmetics in their story about purchasing green presents.

After you decide on the perfect gift, don't forget to also be mindful about the way it's wrapped. Not all wrapping paper can be recycled. In the U.S., you can recycle paper that does not have metallic, velvety or glittery elements, USA Today explains. Alternatives to conventional wrapping paper include recycling brown grocery bags, reusing old newspapers or wrapping gifts in reusable cloth (a 400-year-old Japanese practice called Furoshiki), Madeleine Somerville writes in The Guardian.

2. Dim the Lights
Christmas lights certainly make the season bright, but there's an ecological cost to all that electricity. The U.S. consumes 6.6 billion kilowatt hours of energy each year on seasonal light displays, The Center for Global Development reports citing a 2008 study from the U.S. Department of Energy. That's more energy than developing countries like El Salvador, Ethiopia, Cambodia or Nepal use in a year!

So what can you do if you think of lights as synonymous with Christmas? In The Guardian, Jessica Aldred suggests switching to LED, solar-powered or rechargeable-battery-powered lights. She also points out that "paraffin candles are made from petroleum residue ... Candles made from soy, beeswax or natural vegetable-based wax are more eco-friendly because they biodegrade and are smoke-free."

3. Choose the Right Tree
Christmas trees are so popular that 75 percent of Americans display a Christmas tree, with a majority of them choosing an artificial one, The New York Times reports, based on a data from the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA). But is that the greenest option? While a new study by ACTA found that an artificial tree is more environmentally friendly than a real tree if you use the artificial tree for five years or more, others dispute that claim.

Bill Ulfelder, New York's Nature Conservancy executive director told The Times that "real trees were 'unquestionably' the better option." When bought locally, greenhouse gas emissions are reduced. Other ways to make your real tree purchase more environmentally friendly are to buy trees that can be replanted or find a local program that recycles trees and turns them into mulch.

4. Have a Glitter-Free Christmas
EcoWatch has written before about the dangers of glitter, which contributes to the microplastic pollution plaguing the oceans. Olga Pantos, a research scientist with New Zealand's Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR), told Stuff that on a recent shopping trip that "it was almost impossible to find anything that didn't have glitter." So, choosing non-glittery decorations can help keep microplastics out of the oceans.

5. Help Fight #PointlessPlastic
Greenpeace UK is calling out supermarkets for their unnecessary plastic packaging of festive items, and they want you to join the fight. With the hashtag #PointlessPlastic, they are encouraging people to share photos of the worst offenses in supermarkets. Greenpeace will then ask the public to vote on the most egregious. "By exposing the worst festive plastic offenders, we'll be showing supermarkets that their use of plastic is unacceptable, and that their customers have had enough," Greenpeace states on it website.

Insights/Opinion
In the barrier reef in Belize a cave in formed a great blue hole. Lomingen / iStock / Getty Images Plus

LIVE Interview: Plastic Found in Great Blue Hole in Belize

2018 was the year for plastic pollution awareness. One good aspect of the plastic crisis is the fact that we can solve it. Getting involved with solutions is an easy way to have our voices heard globally.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Kingborough Council

Tasmania Builds Road From Single-Use Plastics, Glass and Printer Toner

A local government in Tasmania found a clever way to recycle single-use plastics and other landfill-bound waste by building a new road.

The 500-meter (1,640-foot) stretch outside the city of Hobart is made of approximately 173,600 plastic bags and packaging, as well as 82,500 glass bottle equivalents diverted from landfill, the Kingborough council announced Tuesday.

Keep reading... Show less
Insights/Opinion
Alchemy Goods / Bambaw / LuminAID

EcoWatch's Favorite Green Gifts for the Holidays

The holidays are coming and if you're stuck on what to give your eco-conscious friend or relative, we've got you covered. At EcoWatch, we're big fans of homemade presents, products that actually help the planet, and putting our dollars towards a good cause. This year, our staff has rounded up some of the best green gifts we've given and received, as well as the items on our wish list.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Politics
U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Senate Approves Farm Bill

By Dan Nosowitz

The Farm Bill, which is supposed to be passed about every five years but which has for the past few been substantially delayed, finally saw the Senate floor Thursday, where it passed by a vote of 87 to 13.

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
Mtwrighter / CC BY-SA 4.0

Most Diverse Butterfly Center in the U.S. to be Bulldozed for Trump’s Border Wall

The National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas is the most diverse butterfly sanctuary in the U.S. Some 200 species of butterflies find a home there each year, including the Mexican bluewing, the black swallowtail and the increasingly imperiled monarch. And, as soon as February, almost 70 percent of it could be lost to President Donald Trump's border wall, The Guardian reported Thursday.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Energy
McAfee Knob along the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. Appalachian Trail Conservancy / NPS

Court Tosses Controversial Pipeline Permits, Rules Forest Service Failed to ‘Speak for the Trees’

The Lorax would not approve of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline—the controversial pipeline intended to carry fracked natural gas through 600 miles in Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina. That's the sentiment behind a ruling by a Virginia appeals court Thursday tossing out a U.S. Forest Service permit for the pipeline to cross 21 miles of national forest in Virginia, including a part of the Appalachian Trail, The News & Observer reported.

Keep reading... Show less
Business
The Overpass Light Brigade at Bascom Hall in Madison, Wisconsin on April 4, 2014. depthandtime / Flickr

Global Divestment Movement Celebrates Milestone: 1,000 Institutions With Nearly $8 Trillion in Assets Have Vowed to Ditch Fossil Fuels

By Jake Johnson

While the COP24 climate talks are at risk of ending without a concrete plan of action thanks in large part to the Trump administration's commitment to a dirty energy agenda, environmental groups on Thursday celebrated a major milestone in the global movement to take down the fossil fuel industry after the number of public and private institutions that have vowed to divest from oil, gas and coal companies surpassed 1,000.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!