Appalachia Poised to Be Part of Shift to Clean Energy

July 22, 2021 | 3:33 pm
Garen M.CC BY-NC 2.0
Ted Boettner
Senior researcher at the Ohio River Valley Institute

For over 150 years, the Appalachian region has provided the cheap energy that has powered the nation to become an industrial giant and build a middle class. At the same time, the enormous wealth pulled from the hills of Appalachia largely enriched other parts of the country while leaving environmental degradation and persistent poverty in its wake. As federal policymakers design policies to transition and invest in a clean energy economy, it is imperative that Appalachia can rebuild and grow a 21st Century sustainable economy that builds shared prosperity.  

The people of Appalachia need to be at the table, and not on the menu when it comes to a clean energy transformation. As three recent studies have shown, meeting climate change goals and creating more jobs in Appalachia at the same time is doable. For example, a study by economist Robert Pollin (University of Massachusetts-Amherst) and others found that West Virginia could cut its carbon emissions in half over the next ten years while creating 41,100 jobs by investing less than 2% of the state’s GDP each year. According to the Energy Information Administration, West Virginia, my home state, has the second most carbon-intensive economy of any state in the country. If West Virginia can do it, we can all do it.  

Now comes a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists and an external advisory committee, of which I am member, that provides a blueprint for how we can effectively address the climate crisis, advance social and economic justice, and drive system-wide change that will ensure that fossil fuel-dependent communities and everyone else can live better lives. Unlike other reports that put forth pathways for meeting net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the UCS report understands that meeting this challenge will require not just large investments in renewable energy, electrification, energy efficiency and new technologies. It will require democracy. It will require people in local communities from all walks of life taking a leading role in deciding how—not whether—this clean energy transformation will occur.    

In particular, the UCS report emphasizes that policymakers should meaningfully engage with those that have been pushed aside, suffered disproportionately from pollution and poverty, or have worked in the fossil fuel sectors, to secure resources for these communities to build a new and more equitable economy that addresses the legacy of inequality that has been a feature of our extractive energy economy:  

“…history and present-day circumstances show that race, class, health, income, political power, and even traditions are deeply intertwined with our fossil fuel–based energy system. To unwind one challenge, we must unwind the others; a technological transition coupled with societal transformation is the surest path to a just and equitable achievement of our climate goals.”  

As part of this just and equitable societal transformation, the UCS report recommends “intentional, robust, and sustained investments in the workers and communities that have long helped to power this country.” Since Appalachia is the birthplace of the oilgas and coal industry in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and continues to play an outsized role in gas and coal production today, it is ground-zero for moving toward a low-carbon future. And it will take people, projects, and policy to ensure that Appalachia benefits from a transition to clean energy and that it can clean up the environmental devastation from over 150 years of natural resource extraction.  

Pivotal to making this happen will be federal action that includes fossil fuel transition support along with large scale investments to clean up billions in damages from abandoned and modern coal mine sites, coal ash impoundments, and orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells in the region. As the UCS report highlights, transition support and clean energy investments should include “high-road labor standards” and be “broadly accessible” and the jobs should pay well with good benefits.  

Since fossil fuel jobs generally pay higher wages and better benefits than most clean energy jobs, it is imperative that federal investments to transition to a clean energy economy include direct support to fossil fuel workers and communities, including things such as wage insurance, reemployment, fiscal relief, and economic development. As a recent report by Reimagine Appalachia outlines, federal investments in climate infrastructure can and must be designed to maximize community benefits and the creation of good union jobs to ensure a true transition.   

The Appalachian region has over $30 billion dollars in damage from outstanding coal mine and oil and gas reclamation. Repairing this damage can not only improve the environment, public health and safety, but also create thousands of good paying jobs. Two recent reports by the Ohio River Valley Institute estimate that plugging over 538,000 hazardous abandoned and orphaned oil and gas wells and reclaiming half of the damage from abandoned mine lands in Appalachia could create nearly 30,000 jobs per year over the next decade. The good news is the Biden Administration and Congress have proposed spending $16 billion to plug old oil and gas wells and clean up abandoned mine lands as part of an infrastructure plan.  

As policymakers, communities, and other stakeholders begin building a path toward a clean energy economy it is important that nobody is left behind and that we all have an opportunity to fully engage in the process and build a brighter future and a better quality of life. This new report provides us with a blueprint and framework for how to make it happen.   

For additional perspectives from the author team, please see the Clean Energy Transformation series.