Excerpt from article published on 12 Dec. 2016 by Courtney Balestier. For full article, click here.
In the heart of Appalachia, in places like West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, life has long been built around coal, figuratively and literally. In the early 20th century, coal companies founded towns in the rugged and steep interiors of West Virginia to hold their workforces. But coal—and the traditional idea of coal country with it—is dying. Markets have embraced cheaper or cleaner alternatives. Natural gas has surpassed coal as the country's largest source of net electricity generation. Renewables are projected to increase by 72% by 2040. After years of coal booms and busts, "this is final," says Gwendolyn Christon, the owner of the IGA grocery store in Isom, Kentucky, and one of the many locals we spoke to in a trip across the region to document the future of coal country. "If we’re gonna stay here and prosper, we have to start looking for other ways of making a living. You have to do that quickly and not just sit back and wait for something to happen. It’s not going to depend on the federal government or someone coming in to rescue us. It’s going to be us going to work and doing it ourselves."
Throughout 2016, the decline of coal has been used as a political football, a metaphor for the damage done by liberal, environmentalist regulation to the working class. Hillary Clinton, who said that her energy plans would "put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business," lost enormously across Appalachia. Donald Trump, both during the campaign and since his victory, has promised to save the coal industry with energy reform that rescinds environmental efforts like Obama's Climate Action Plan; he’s also spoken of abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency, and there is concern he will ignore international climate agreements. In West Virginia, the newly elected Democratic governor, Trump-esque billionaire coal baron Jim Justice, is noncommittal on the existence of climate change and has pledged to "promote new uses for coal," incentivize power plants to use only West Virginia coal and bring back coal jobs. But economics might be a stronger force than rhetoric: Even with the prospect of supportive federal and state administrations, many power company executives—including ones in Appalachia—are declaring that coal is simply too cost-ineffective, and are continuing with plans to shut down their coal-fired power plants.
But while coal country happens to be in the political spotlight today, the region is not unique in its susceptibility to the problems in which it finds itself. The 20th century has seen countless regional economies built on extractive and polluting industries that have been decimated by technological advancement and globalization: manufacturing in the Rust Belt, the auto industry in Detroit, the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest. As the coal industry dies—and make no mistake, it is dying—some in Appalachia are still clinging to a past that can’t save them, but many others are trying to find a way to create a new economy, focused on a future where the communities of Appalachia are more self-sustaining. In driving through the region this fall, we discovered that the lessons they’re learning and sharing will be vital as more and more industries—and the economies they support—fall victim to the same forces that are ending coal. The innovative web of entrepreneurs, community organizations, and government programs in Appalachia can serve as the model for the transition to a new economy for any community.