These words remain as true today as when they were spoken 50 years ago. In 1975, the industry directly employed 55,000 workers and accounted for about 20 percent of our state’s economy (gross state product). Today, the coal industry directly employs only 19,000 workers and makes up just 6 percent of our state’s economy.
According to recent forecasts by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the situation is only going to get worse in West Virginia, especially in our southern coal counties that already are showing signs of economic struggle.
Over the next 25 years, West Virginia’s coal production is predicted to decline by 35 percent. Today, we mine 165 million tons of coal in the Mountain State — by 2035, this number is expected to drop to 107 million. The southern coal counties will be hardest hit, with an EIA projected decline of 58 percent.
Amazingly, the EIA’s predictions do not factor in potential regulation of mountaintop removal or a federal cap on carbon emissions. The projected decline is based primary on economic forces out of the state’s control, such as increased production costs and competition from other coal producing regions and from other energy sources like natural gas.
In the face of further erosion of coal-related jobs, which threatens to send even more workers out of state, we must develop new strategies to diversify and transition our state’s economy. This begins with our congressional leaders working to pass a comprehensive federal clean energy and climate change bill. As the old political saying goes, we must be at the table to avoid being on the menu.
A federal energy bill, for example, could ensure that new investments and programs specifically target the communities most affected by reduced coal production. This starts by guaranteeing that no coal miner or retiree will lose pension or health care benefits as a result of climate change legislation.
Transition assistance could include not only ample wage supplements and benefits, but also free college or vocational education for displaced workers seeking new careers.
Our congressional leaders could also push for the creation of a Community revitalization trust fund that would provide economic development grants to create jobs and business opportunities for displaced workers and community members. Such legislation would create new industries and jobs while ensuring that we protect against the devastating effects of climate change.
Instead of viewing clean energy and climate change legislation as a barrier to West Virginia’s economic livelihood, we should seize the opportunity to strengthen our communities and to move toward a more sustainable economic future for our state.
— Ted Boettner is executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.
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