Alternative Economic Development in Coal Dependent Regions

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October 16, 2014; Charleston Gazette

In Kentucky, the fabulously muddy campaign between incumbent Senator and Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger, Allison Lundergan Grimes, is coating the airwaves in coal dust. A group called Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, a dark money nonprofit, is running ads describing McConnell as a friend to coal and Grimes as having cashed checks from people and groups who are “anti-coal.” For her part, Grimes has pitched a “pro-coal plan” that is a “national energy policy that has a prominent role for abundant coal…and supports coal as an important export product.”

While both candidates fight to preserve an economy based on a high carbon-generating fuel source that the world is turning against, someone has to do something for the people of Kentucky, West Virginia, and other states that rely extensively on coal for their economic activity. In Kentucky, a program called Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) arose from the initiative of Governor Steve Beshear and others, noting that, due to the major restructuring of the state and national economy in relation to coal, “the region was at a ‘tipping point’ and that people were ready, willing, and able to begin an honest dialogue regarding the future they face, and what would be necessary to not simply accept the one to come, but to envision and work together to create a more hopeful alternative.”

Some major nonprofit leaders are listed on the SOAR website as being part of this initiative: Justin Maxson, president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development on the SOAR Futures Forum; Brenda Weaver of the Kentucky Housing Corporation on the infrastructure committee; and Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies on the health working group, just to name three.

Now, West Virginia is following suit. The president of the West Virginia state senate, Jeff Kessler, announced the creation of a counterpart effort there, Southern Coalfields Organizing and Revitalizing the Economy (SCORE), aimed at diversifying the economy away from overreliance on coal. “It is not impossible to envision a renewed Southern West Virginia,” Kessler said in his announcement about SCORE. “It’s one thing to say that we care about these communities. It’s something else to push for a new way of thinking in order to address the issues facing them.”

Like SOAR, SCORE’s agenda will include work on tourism, workforce development, agribusiness, broadband, and infrastructure. SCORE also includes attention to coalbed methane reserves and support for clean coal research and development. SCORE and SOAR are necessary steps toward the revitalization of this region as it makes the necessary pivot away from dependence on coal. However, both SCORE and SOAR have the feeling of “been there, done that,” with the lists of almost obligatory task force topics for new economic development. It feels like the kind of agenda that has probably been generated countless times by regional and statewide bodies that knew, long before the current wave of divestment, that too much dependence on coal was as unhealthy economically as coal mining was to the miners who suffered with black lung, trying to win compensation against armies of coal company lawyers.

This is the region that, five decades ago, Harry Caudill profiled in Night Comes to the Cumberlands, the seminal “biography” of Appalachia that may have been a major cog in the creation of the Appalachian Regional Commission. Despite Caudill’s somewhat strange theory about the genetic make-up of Appalachians, the economic travails he saw, just like those described by Michael Harrington in The Other America, forced the U.S., for however briefly, to confront elements of its ingrained, generational problems of rural poverty.

In Appalachia, poverty was linked to an extractive, exploitative economy. As SCORE and SOAR develop, one might hope that these Appalachian strategies get matched with the investment of dollars from universities, pension funds, and foundations that are currently being withdrawn from big coal in popular coal divestment campaigns. It is probably right and unavoidable to be sounding the death knell for a coal-based economy, but the solution for the people who have toiled for generations under coal’s thumb should be more than being deaf to their needs.—Rick Cohen