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Declining Role of Coal in Appalachia's Economy

Rob Perks

Posted January 19, 2010 in Health and the Environment, Saving Wildlife and Wild Places, Solving Global Warming

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"Coal has contributed significantly to local and state economies in Central Appalachia, but production has fallen substantially over the last 12 years as other coal basins and sources of fuel have become more competitive.  This trend is expected to continue as mining costs increase due to the depletion of the lowest cost coal reserves, and as new environmental regulations are implemented.  As this happens, local and state economies will need new sources of jobs and revenue to replace coal mining jobs and taxes."

So says Rory McIlmoil, co-author of a new study by Downstream Strategies, which recommends policies for transitioning the poverty-racked, pollution-rife coalfields to a healthier, sutainable, diversified economy based on energy efficiency and renewable energy.

At a basic level it's easy to understand that the coal industry's historical boom-and-bust track record in Appalachia does not bode well for the region's long-term economic stability.  This new analysis provides confirmation, finding that Central Appalachian coal production is projected to fall by nearly 50% within the next ten years.   Fortunately, this region -- encompassing the coalfields of southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia, and eastern Tennessee -- can generate new jobs and tax revenues by replacing coal production with through wind, solar, hydropower and sustainable biomass production.  As outlined in the report, the path toward a diversified clean energy economy is paved through policies, such as: 

  • requiring each state to provide 25% of their energy from renewable sources
  • providing grants, tax credits, clean energy bonds, or low-interest loans to support renewable energy development and manufacturing
  • developing and deploying programs to retrain workers with the skills required for renewable energy industries
  • incentivizing local ownership of energy development, to help maximize the local economic benefits of renewable energy projects.

Evan Hansen, co-author of the study, stresses that the projected decline in coal production in the coming decades means that the region's political leaders have an obligation to set a new course sooner, rather than later.  It is more critical than ever that the economic diversification begin immediately "especially in the rural areas set to be the most impacted by a sharp decline in the region's coal economy," says Hansen.  Adds McIllmoil: "The renewable energy sector offers one of the greatest opportunities for economic development."

As might be expected, the Charleston Gazette's resident coal expert Ken Ward, Jr. breaks down this must-read report in his Coal Tattoo blog.

I only hope that Appalachia's politicians will finally wake up and smell the coal fumes of the region's dirty, dying mono-industry.  They should act in the long-term best interests of the people they serve rather than continue to placate the short-term profit motives of the out-of-state coal companies.  Perhaps this new report will kick-start Appalachia's long-delayed transition to a cleaner, brighter economic future. 

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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