Appalachians Share Solutions for Coal Transition with Congress

Feb 15, 2019

Democrats in the U.S. House are continuing their focus on climate change, this week shifting from its environmental to its economic impact and looking to Appalachia for next steps to aid communities with fossil fuel-based economies. 

On Thursday, members of the Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee heard testimony on how struggling coal communities are working to transition to more efficient, greener industries that can still provide the region with an economic base.

“Investing in the economic revitalization of the communities that have been extraction based…must be front and center in the shaping of policies addressing climate change,” Brandon Dennison told the subcommittee. 

Dennison is the CEO of West Virginia-based Coalfield Development Corporation, an organization that retrains workers who have lost jobs in coal’s decline and incubates new business initiatives in Appalachia, but Dennison said retraining programs like his that are already in place are not enough because businesses who could employ them are not thriving yet in the region.

Dennison argued the transition away from coal is already underway in central Appalachian communities and it is creating not only an economic, but also a social and environmental crisis that must be addressed by thoughtful federal policy. He recommended lawmakers work to create a task force focused on a just transition 

Peter Hille, president of Mountain Association for Community Economic Development in Kentucky, agreed with Dennison that a focus on just transition, one that provides economic and social supports for communities, is necessary, but urged lawmakers to consider not just how to recreate the jobs lost in the extractive industries, but rather how to create a new, diverse economy. 

“We envision economic transition driven by entrepreneurs whose businesses create goods and services to drive diverse local economies and focus on sectors that not only generate economic activity but also generate benefits for the community,” Hille said. 

But Bill Bisset, president of the Huntington, West Virginia, Regional Chamber of Commerce, didn’t share the same sense of urgency about finding an economic solution for his home state. West Virginia is experiencing a boost from increased international demand for metallurgical coal and natural gas. 

Instead, Bisset is concerned that while the nation focuses on the global climate problem, states like West Virginia will be disproportionately hurt, precisely because of its natural resources wealth.

“We simply do not have to sacrifice one industry to create new opportunities,” Bisset told members of the subcommittee. “Sacrificing the economic future of West Virginia and Appalachia will have little impact on global man-made carbon, but you will succeed in creating more poverty, more hopelessness and an uncertain future for those of us…who call West Virginia home.”

Republican members of the subcommittee, however, wanted to focus the conversation on one proposed legislative solution that has been controversial in Washington: the Green New Deal. 

The Green New Deal is a package of economic and social proposals that would transition the United States toward full independence from fossil fuels and address historical, societal inequalities.

Recently, unauthorized iterations of the proposal were leaked online that New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez– the Democrat largely behind the Green New Deal– denounced as “doctored,” but their contentious contents becem the subject of lines of GOP questions for witnesses Thursday. 

Wyoming Republican Rep. Liz Cheney interrupted majority witnesses and persistently demanded that they defend the proposal, regardless of the fact that none of them were asked to Washington to advocate for the program.

Despite the extensive and diverse testimonies throughout the meeting, the conversation still dissolved into a partisan shouting match, largely signifying business as usual in Washington.