Coal Tattoo

Diversifying the coalfields: Finding a path forward

Census Dying Counties

Coal Tattoo posts have been pretty scarce this week, in large part because I tried to focus my time on the groundbreaking forum, “A Bright Economic Future for the Mountain State,” over at the Clay Center. 

The event, sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, and the West Virginia Community Development Hub, aimed to jump-start the discussion about what our state is — and more important what else we can — do to help soften the impact of the ongoing coal decline in West Virginia’s southern counties. If you missed it, we’ve got coverage of it here, here, here and here.

A couple of moments in the forum stuck in my mind. One was when Charleston Area Alliance Matt Ballard — certainly no coal-hating socialist — made his views pretty clear about the need for West Virginia to look forward, not backward, when it comes to making our communities places where families can live and work:

There certainly is an element in our state that doesn’t want things to change, and we have to overcome that.  When we talk about West Virginia’s future, we have to understand that it’s not going to look like our past.

Matt didn’t really get very specific about exactly what element of our state he was talking about. But you know what, it doesn’t matter. Because we could all probably work on our ability to accept change, whether it’s the decline of the state’s coal industry or the move to online distribution of news and information. As Sen. Byrd reminded us, we all need to try to embrace the future.

The other moment was then Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette got the question (full disclosure: I’m the one who scribbled this one onto an index card) that asked him to list specific steps that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and his administration have done to try to prepare the Southern West Virginia coalfields for the production decline that’s projected to continue for some time. Secretary Burdette kind of hemmed and hawed for a moment, and then, as I explained in our print story:

Secretary-Burdette“Well, look, I’d like to tell you there is some master scheme in every section of the state,” Burdette said. “But the challenge we have in the coal-producing areas of the state is that it’s a lucrative profession … it’s awfully difficult to motivate these folks into a different career path if the one they’ve enjoyed for so long might still be available.

“There is going to be a huge transition, regardless,” Burdette said. “As some of the fields play out, we will have communities that need to find a new way of life.”

The only specific effort Burdette could cite to help with that search was “Reconnecting McDowell,” a partnership to boost that county’s educational system as a path toward economic improvements.

“That’s probably [items] 1, 2 and 3 is that one effort,” Burdette said. “But if we can make it work there, we can make it work anywhere else in the state.”

On the one hand, it’s kind of surprising that Keith didn’t have an answer to this question prepared, given the topic of the event. But really, you also should respect the fact that he didn’t try to dodge around it, providing some prepared soundbite that pretends the administration has an easy answer — or that there is an easy answer. That one moment summarizes what anyone who has spent anytime trying to figure this one out knows: The future is going to be tough for our southern coalfields, and no one is exactly sure what to do to help them through it. If someone had an easy answer, we could implement it and move on.

There’s also, though, a pretty important problem with the part of Keith Burdette’s comment when he says, “it’s awfully difficult to motivate these folks into a different career path if the one they’ve enjoyed for so long might still be available.”

That’s all just fine, except that all indications are these kind of well-paying coal jobs are going to continue to become increasingly scarce in the southern coalfields. And the “war on coal” crowd among industry officials and their political friends is all about continuing a massive public relations campaign to convince coalfield residents that, if not for President Obama and the EPA, none of these jobs would be going away. The truth is that pretty much every estimate around shows a consistent decline in Southern West Virginia coal production, regardless of what Obama and EPA do or don’t do about mountaintop removal, coal ash, global warming or any of coal’s other externalized costs.

Coals War

So it’s hard to understand why Keith Burdette’s boss, Gov. Tomblin, hasn’t made a very public pronouncement that dealing with economic crisis looming over his own region is a top priority for all of state government, and has instead rebuffed state residents and activists who visited his office and delivered a letter asking the governor to create a task force to begin the serious planning that’s needed.

Oddly, I heard a report this week that Tomblin’s Division of Energy director, Jeff Herholdt, had actually recommended formation of such a group. But when I called Jeff to ask about it, you would have thought I had accused him of some terrible crime. He had no idea what I was talking about, and certainly hadn’t proposed any such effort by his agency or anyone else.

Are West Virginia leaders really so afraid of the coal lobby and the public relations agents who make a nice living peddling its version of events that nobody wants to admit they even considered talking about this diversification stuff? Really?

Well, a bunch of bunch of business and labor leaders, academics and activists, community organizers and plain-old citizens weren’t afraid to talk about it. And this week’s discussion was a great step forward. But I wanted to mention a few things that seem important to consider as this movement or whatever it is continues in whatever format it’s going to continue in:

jeremy-richardson-200px— First, Union of Concerned Scientists fellow Jeremy Richardson (left) made a bold move when he decided to not include any lengthy discussion of climate change on the agenda for this event. Issues like global warming — and especially mountaintop removal — tend to suck all the air out of the room here in West Virginia. Not everyone agreed with this decision. But it was worth it for one day to set those issues aside, while acknowledging they are important, and talk about the next step: Economic diversification.

But we can’t ignore coal’s negative impacts forever. Well, we can try. But the Rev. Jeff Allen made a very eloquent plea at the forum that everyone’s thoughts, feeling and dreams be included in whatever discussion West Virginia has about its future. Of course, Jeff is right when he says:

It’s not about getting a slice of the pie. It’s about having a say in the kind of pie.

Folks who believe mountaintop removal must be stopped need to be part of this discussion. So do the miners who work at those operations. And we need to talk about black lung and other mine safety and health issues, and about coal slurry dams and coal-ash impoundments, and about air pollution. To make good decisions all of it has to be at the table, and everyone has to have a chance to speak — and everyone has to listen to everybody else.

That’s all very, very tall order. So far, we haven’t had any political leadership that’s really even made a serious, honest shot at this. We have to figure out how to create the political space for real discussions. One part of that may be to first step the false choice that suggests we’re talking about zero coal or unlimited coal. Perhaps the discussion needs to focus on the projections that everyone knows about Central Appalachian coal, projections that show us coal isn’t going away completely, but is certainly headed for a significant decline. That might allow us to stop making everything about whether you’re “for coal” or “against coal” and instead being about real issues and real answers.


Next, one thing that was clear from this event is that there are in fact lots of interesting things going on economically in West Virginia that have nothing to do with coal. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that, given the media coverage the coal gets. I’m as responsible for that as anyone. We in the media need to provide more and better information about what trends are shaping the current and future West Virginia economy.

If there’s any lesson from Elaine McMillion’s great interactive documentary, Hollow, it seems to me to be that West Virginians have a lot to say. They value their past and, while a bit nervous about it, they also want very much to embrace the challenges of the future. We in the media and those in government and business need to listen to our people more, to get out into those communities and ask them what’s going on, and what they would like to see go on in the future.

Personally, I found that sessions at the forum that included young people and women to be the most energetic and exciting.  At least one of them that was tilted more toward older white men seemed a bit stuck in the mud. There was a lot of reciting of lists of existing programs that, if they were working, it seems to me we wouldn’t have the problems we have. But the younger and more diverse the speakers, the more uplifting the sessions were, the more ideas seemed to be bouncing around and the more hopeful for the future things seemed.

Perhaps the lesson there is that this shouldn’t be all about chasing smokestacks or crackers or counting the dollars we think will flow in as the Marcellus Shale flows out.

One of the most fascinating speakers at the forum was Kristen Barker, president of a Cincinnati-based industrial cooperative program modeled on the Mondragon Worker-Owner Cooperative from Spain. Barker said one thing she noticed was that West Virginians at Wednesday’s meeting talked a lot about finding ways to get new businesses to move into West Virginia:

You’ve talked about all the things you can do to got people to come here.  I would instead think about how awesome the state is and how you have everything you need right here. The power is right here.