If you ask a coal miner about the “War on Coal,” chances are you’ll get an earful about the EPA, President Obama, and all the environmentalists who don’t care about coal miners and their families. You’ll probably hear that coal mining is all there is in an area where no job alternatives exist to make a living wage. All politics aside, one has to realize they are absolutely right. Coal is all there is in Appalachia unless you join the ranks of the working poor for a part-time job at a grocery store, fast food joint, or the local Wal-Mart. I could explain the reasons things have come to be this way in Appalachia, citing a century’s worth of industry influence and political corruption, but there is no need at this point. The fact remains that coal is all there is at the moment, and coal employment will continue to decline despite any upticks in markets or deregulation of the industry.
Over the last two decades, many solutions have been offered up to diversify coalfield economies. High bandwidth internet infrastructure has been suggested to increase the possibility of electronic information technology jobs. Some have begun workforce development initiatives, seeking to train an entire workforce worthy of attracting advance manufacturers to the region. The creation of a renewable energy industry has been a favorite among environmental activists and other liberal think tanks. And lastly, there are many who believe a tourist industry could be built around the remaining natural beauty of the region and even the history of coal mining.
Each has its flaws.
Electronic information technology jobs such as data centers don’t employ large numbers of people. Call centers are highly mobile and have a tendency to exploit local tax breaks. Once tax breaks end, they pull up stakes and move to the next economically depressed area. Advanced manufacturers have a lot to choose from when considering locations to invest in multi-million dollar facilities, including areas with larger populations, better access to transportation infrastructure, and not to mention areas with better-funded public education systems, no worry of environmental health issues, and many more recreational opportunities. Though renewable energy installations could create a short uptick in construction jobs, the jobs would only be short-term and local people would only be hired if outside contractors didn’t bring in their own workforce of skilled laborers. I think it’s also worth mentioning that wind and solar will never equal the base load capacities of coal or natural gas, especially if people continue wasting energy. Finally, tourism is predominantly a service based industry rife with minimum wage positions that do not offer health benefits. If tourism did grow, it would take the form of outside investors purchasing all the real estate and gentrifying local communities. Local residents would be left to suffer among service industry jobs, not unlike Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Boone, North Carolina to name a few.
So what industry could provide thousands of living wage jobs, jobs that do not require extensive retraining and could be accomplished using local training facilities? What industry would not require extensive infrastructure to be installed before jobs are offered to those who desperately need them? What industry would help alleviate the issues of fossil fuel consumption?
The transition won’t be without its issues. It will take tremendous investments in public projects to pay for materials and wages (perhaps from a national carbon fee & dividend)? Needless to say, this will take a great deal of political motivation. Appalachian communities as a whole will also have to step up and do their part.
The fact remains that political interests who have enjoyed the reign of coal will not turn their backs on the industry that has helped them maintain their wealth and power. People will have to take back control of their local, state, and federal governments from extractive industries. New politicians will have to be voted in and constantly watched. Absolute transparency will be needed in the procurement and distribution of federal funds necessary to ensure a proper economic transition. The Appalachian people have sacrificed enough. At the cost of our health and well being, we have dug the coal that has made everyone’s life in this nation more convenient. I think it’s only fair that this nation whose populist patriotic ideals are based upon liberty and justice for all, seeks to make true on its commitments.