In the last 30 years, the coal industry in West Virginia has increased production by 140 percent while eliminating more than 40,000 jobs. Alternatively, the wind industry in the United States. already operates more than 35,000 turbines, and employs 85,000 people — a number equal to those employed by the coal industry. One of the best solutions for high poverty rates in Appalachia, especially central Appalachia, is to phase out mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining. This solution will eliminate a variety of problems in the region. MTR coal mining has ruined land that would otherwise be suitable for viable agriculture, sustainable forest products and other economic developments. Although the coal industry frequently boasts of MTR improving land for other uses, only about 10 percent of former MTR sites have been converted to anything besides a barren area of rock.Another issue with MTR coal mining is its impact on county tax revenues through absentee land ownership. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, railroad companies bought immense amounts of surface and mineral rights from local mountaineers. According to the last study of land ownership patterns in Appalachia (completed in 1981), over 60 percent of West Virginia’s land is owned by landholding corporations. This percentage is even higher in coalfield counties. The landholding companies do not pay their fair share of property tax, causing lower tax revenues throughout the region.
Finally, coal production is expected to decline 40 percent from 2010-2015, according to the 2010 Annual Energy Outlook by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, creating a need for other economic options. In 2000, the U.S. Geologic Survey estimated that the most economically recoverable coal in West Virginia would be mined out within 20-30 years. West Virginia must move away from coal mining in order to have a sustained economy in the future.
To replace mountaintop removal, the Appalachian region should invest in both energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. The Appalachian Regional Commission has invested over $4.3 million and leveraged $18 million in private investment that improved energy efficiency and reduced business costs. This type of funding should not only continue, but grow. A downside to this solution is its reliance on government assistance funding. Hopefully, once the programs are implemented, the communities will become self-sustaining and no longer need government support. Funding should also target Central Appalachia to implement the strongest concentration of poverty in the region.
In terms of renewable energy, a non-profit based in West Virginia, Coal River Mountain Watch, has proposed wind turbines on top of Coal River Mountain in southern West Virginia instead of continuing coal mining. In 2007, a wind potential study was conducted to see if there was the potential to place wind turbines on Coal River Mountain. The wind potential and subsequent economic studies found that it is possible to place 328 megawatts of wind energy on Coal River Mountain. That’s enough to power 70,000 West Virginia homes and provide $1.7 million in taxes to the county every year. It is also estimated that the proposed wind farm would only lead to the clearing of 50-100 acres of forest — less than 2 percent of the proposed mining area. The four surface mining permits proposed for the same area would produce coal and energy for only 14 years, while the wind farm would offer renewable energy for much longer.
Many criticize eliminating coal mining in West Virginia because of the amount of jobs the sector provides. A wind farm would employ over 200 local residents during the two-year construction phase, and create 40-50 permanent maintenance jobs afterward. A wind farm would also allow the mountain to be used for other purposes, like sustainable forestry, mountain harvesting, and gathering of wild forest plants, creating additional jobs and the opportunity for stable income for locals.
This solution is excellent because it will put Appalachia at the forefront of a growing economic sector and allow for economic diversification in the region. Renewable energy industries are more labor intensive than traditional fossil fuel methods, which could help remedy high unemployment rates while providing electricity to a region often lacking basic infrastructure.
“About ARC.” Appalachian Regional Commission. Web. 30 Apr. 2012.
“Save Coal River Mountain!” Coal River Mountain Watch. Web. 17 May 2012.
“Sustainable Energy and Economic Diversification.” Coal River Mountain Watch. Web. 30 Apr. 2012.
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