The U.S. coal industry has been on the decline for years – and it shows no sign of stopping. In the first three months of 2016, coal production was 30 percent below production levels in the same period last year; meanwhile, U.S. coal stockpiles are at a 25 year high. Last summer, for the first time ever, natural gas-fired power generation surpassed coal as the dominant source of electricity in the United States, signaling a turning point in the U.S. energy transition.
While some have heralded the “fracking revolution” as a salve for distressed local economies in oil and gas rich states such as Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and North Dakota, communities centered on coal mining and coal-reliant industries in Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia and elsewhere have suffered immensely as gas, along with renewables and energy efficiency, replace coal as King.
Rising efficiency within the coal industry and cheaper coal reserves in Wyoming have meant far fewer coal jobs in coal-rich Appalachia for some time. However, the transition to cheap natural gas, energy efficiency and renewable energy sources has significantly accelerated job losses in the region. In 2014 alone, West Virginia saw nearly a 10 percent loss in the number of coal mining jobs, and the loss nationwide was only slightly lower, at near 7 percent. Coal job losses aren’t confined to mining, but also to closures of coal-fired power plants.
While the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan and rising renewable energy installations will bring overall job growth to the United States in sectors such as high-tech manufacturing, energy installations and energy efficiency retrofits, these jobs are not neatly replacing the jobs lost in coal country.
The slow death of the coal industry has also meant the loss of identity, livelihood and community fabric in many regions. The environmental community and policymakers have a duty to coal countries to ensure that the transition to a clean energy economy lifts the prospects of all citizens – including those affected by the loss of coal.
In moving past the political rhetoric of the “War on Coal,” regions are beginning to work in tandem with local development corporations, development offices, non-governmental organizations, and federal agencies to problem solve the growing jobs gap in coal country. While the impacts of coal job losses are very real, it is also a once in a lifetime opportunity to build vibrant, diversified local economies.
In a recent EESI webinar, representatives from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, the Appalachian Regional Commission, the National Association of Development Organizations Research Foundation, and the Conservation Fund's Natural Capital Investment Fund discussed the opportunities and challenges for coal country in re-tooling economies in light of both the Clean Power Plan and the overall energy transition to renewables.
Communities are looking towards locally-owned, renewable energy projects to build community energy resilience and source clean energy. Community loan funds are lending to small businesses and nonprofits for renewable and energy efficiency projects, such as solar panels on a creamery in Garrett County, Maryland. Giles County, Virginia, is working with the Federal Aviation Administration on the emerging drone industry, and attracting high-tech manufacturing to the area in the process. It is also re-developing hiking trails and other tourist attractions.
But in transitioning communities away from coal, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and funding projects is only the beginning. In seeking diversified economies, regions are grappling with a lack of technical assistance, loan capital and a labor force untrained for new industries and technologies. Additionally, while Appalachia currently has some of the cheapest energy costs in the nation, energy-inefficient housing stock means that individuals are burdened with high electricity costs and uncomfortable housing, making any increase in energy costs a real burden.
The federal government has recently provided a cash injection to coal communities, with the Obama Administration having just announced the newest batch of funding under the POWER Plan, which will make $66.8 million available for economic diversification, workforce development, and job creation in coal-impacted communities. Of the total, $45 million will be directed towards implementation efforts in Appalachia. Local development districts, Indian tribes, state, county, and local governments, as well as NGOs and higher educational institutions, are eligible for funding.
As the speakers on the webinar pointed out, community re-development in coal country is in the nascent stage. Working towards vibrant communities with good, local jobs will require creativity and work from stakeholders at every level.