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Appalachia

Appalachia's Natural Gas Counties: Contributing more to the U.S. economy and getting less in return

By Sean O'Leary - Ohio River Valley Institute, February 12, 2021

Economists debate whether there is such a thing as a “resource curse”.

Between 2008 and 2019, twenty-two old industrial and rural counties in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, which make up the Appalachian natural gas region, increased their contribution to US gross domestic product (GDP) by more than one-third. In 2008, the 22 counties were responsible for $2.46 of every $1,000 of national output. By 2019, the figure had climbed to $3.33. Their rate of GDP growth more than tripled that of the nation. However, during the same period, measures of local economic prosperity—the economic impacts of that growth—not only failed to keep pace with the increased share of output, they actually declined.

  • The 22 counties’ share of the nation’s personal income fell by 6.3%, from $2.62 for every $1,000 to just $2.46.
  • Their share of jobs fell by 7.6%, from 2.62 in every 1,000 to 2.46.
  • Their share of the nation’s population fell by 10.9%, from 3.26 for every 1,000 Americans to 2.9 for every thousand.

It is a case of economic growth without prosperity, the defining characteristic of the resource curse.

Most of the GDP increase in this group of counties was due to the Appalachian natural gas production boom, which was facilitated by the advent of a drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” for short.

Read the text (PDF).

ReImagine Appalachia: a (Green) New Deal That Works for Us

By staff - ReImagine Appalachia, August 2020

Appalachians have a long history of hard work, resilience, and coming together to face enormous challenges. Our region is a place of ingenuity. A place where families and neighbors look out for one another.

Now is the time to put our ingenuity to use and imagine a 21st century economy that works for the people in the Ohio River Valley of Appalachia. An economy that is good for working people, communities, our health and the health of our neighbors. One that is grounded in the land and centered on creating wealth locally. One that relies on working people, already skilled in service, industry, trades and farming. One that offers hope to the next generation’s workers—regardless of the color of their skin, ethnicity or gender. And one that does our region’s part to meet the nation’s climate challenge, just as we met the call to provide coal energy to fuel a growing nation a century ago.

Right now, our nation is in crisis. We face the COVID epidemic, a deep economic downturn, extreme inequality, racism, police brutality, and the consequences of a changing climate such as severe storms and flooding. These crises demand from us real, lasting and structural change. It is not a matter of if, but when. When the nation rises to the occasion, people in Appalachia need to be at the table and helping to lead the charge. Together, we can build a vision for the Appalachia we want to live in.

Read the text (PDF).

Can a Just Transition Change Appalachia’s Balance of Power?

By Morgan Hickory and Lydia Patton - Science for the People, Summer 2020

From Volume 23, number 2, People’s Green New Deal

Encuentre una traducción de este artículo en español en nuestro sitio web.

Mining and Nurses

“Biggest thing we got around here is that everything is based off coal. I’m not down on coal, like I said, I’m grateful for it, I love it, and whoever else still wants to do it, more power to you. I’ll back you 100 percent. But we have to find something else around here to support our economy. Mining and nurses the only two things you got. If you don’t put some other type of industrial occupation around here, something that’s not based on coal, then our economy is going to be destroyed. There’s literally nothing left for you to do. Like I said, it’s fast food, making minimum wage, mining, or nursing.”

--David Lee Brett, Jr., former coal miner in Harlan County, KY

A new generation of progressive thinkers, from slightly left-of-center Democrats to committed socialists, is proposing federal legislation for a sweeping economic transition away from fossil fuels. Termed the Green New Deal (GND), this proposal promises to phase fossil fuel industries out of existence and introduce well-paid alternatives for workers in these industries. Any federal project that begins as a policy idea, even if it is enacted by Congress, will encounter challenges on the ground. This is especially true in places like Appalachia, where highly localized systems of power, in place for decades or even centuries, funnel resources into channels controlled by the existing ruling class. Federal injections of money are a periodic occurrence in Central Appalachia, whether distributed through New Deal job creation and infrastructure programs in the 1930s or through humanitarian aid efforts initiated by the War on Poverty in the 1960s.1 Local apex families and entrenched government systems have adapted to take advantage of and benefit from extractive industries such coal. As such, the GND risks floundering in Appalachia if robust local knowledge about its people and politics is not built into the conception and execution of a People’s Green New Deal (PGND).

National Economic Transition Platform: A Visionary Proposal for an Equitable Future

By staff - Just Transition Fund, Summer 2020

Workers and families affected by the changing coal economy are facing a profound crisis complicated by unique difficulties. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and economic decline, coal facility closures, layoffs, and cuts to vital services were devastating to people and places dependent on the coal economy—many of whom are still struggling following earlier economic declines, the loss of manufacturing jobs, or inequality and widespread poverty.

For low-income communities and communities of color already disproportionately left behind by the status quo, the need for equitable and inclusive economic growth is vital. But, now, with COVID-19, these unique challenges are exacerbated. The closure of even more coal facilities is accelerated, giving communities little time to plan for the disappearance of their largest employer and the erosion of the tax base, which provides critical funding for public services, local education, and health care systems.

Read the text (PDF).

Cracked: The Case for Green Jobs Over Pterochemicals in Pennsylvania

By staff - Food and Water Watch, September 2020

While the national economy struggled to recover from the Great Recession, wage and employment growth in Pennsylvania was anemic. This experience mirrored national trends of increasing inequality and a hollowing out of the middle class. Despite the state’s aggressive embrace of fracking as a driver of economic growth, fracking jobs remain scarce and temporary. As frackers suffocate in a glut of natural gas (including ethane) and as Pennsylvanians struggle with the environmental damage wrought by fracking and other dirty industries, Pennsylvania lawmakers are attempting to artificially sustain the boom by offering lucrative concessions to mega-corporations and dirty petrochemical producers.

Doubling down on toxic industries won’t fix the region’s economic woes, but will instead foreclose opportunities for long-term, sustainable growth through green energy manufacturing. Given the economic uncertainties of the coronavirus pandemic, an aggressive commitment to public works investment in green energy is more important now than ever. Solar, wind and energy efficiency are necessary to avert catastrophic climate change. Wind and solar manufacturing would also employ more people than comparable investments in oil, gas, coal or plastics.

Read the text (Linked PDF).

A Look At the Miners’ Blockade Stopping Coal in its Tracks

By Earth First! Journal - It's Going Down, August 14, 2019

When I heard news of the coal miners’ railroad blockade in Harlan County, I knew it presented a real chance for growth, especially for movements like Earth First! who are at the intersection of various struggles, including eco-defense, anti-capitalism, climate justice, and prison abolition.

Though I spent most of my life in flat swampy Florida, stories of Harlan County, Kentucky, were burned into my head as a teenage anarchist in circles of Earth First!ers and IWW-types singing labor songs by fireside.

One of the most famous of union ballads, “Which Side Are You On?,” about miners’ resistance in the Kentucky coalfields, includes the line, “They say in Harlan County there are no neutrals there…” Even before the development of climate-focused mass movement, it has always been Big Coal vs. the rest of us.

Over the years, I must have heard dozens of knock-offs of that song for campaigns all across the country. We’d replace Harlan with whatever county we found ourselves in at the time, facing off with corporate raiders of all types.

And now the barricades have come full circle: back to Harlan, a locale of near-mythical significance for it’s legacy of resistance to corporate greed. The miners there have stopped a coal train operated by the company Blackjewel LLC, which filed for bankruptcy and secretly stopped paying the miners while they were still working.

The past and future of Harlan County

By Vincenzo Blandini - Organizing Work, August 2, 2019

I wrote a review of the movie “Harlan County, USA” not too long ago. It was, frankly, a painful experience for me. I truly hoped to not be writing about Appalachian coal country, and much less Harlan County, Kentucky, for some time. I’ve long since moved on from the coal industry, but it still pains me whenever I read news of some tragedy among my brothers and sisters in darkness.

On July 1, Blackjewel LLC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In the balance are nearly 1,700 employees’ livelihoods across Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Wyoming. Immediately upon filing for bankruptcy, Blackjewel closed many of the mines it operated and workers had their paychecks bounce. The mineworkers had their hard-earned wages stolen from them, both from their paychecks and from their retirement and benefit plans. Some miners have even reported that their 401(k) contributions haven’t been properly credited for months. The miners are owed nearly $12 million in wages and $1.2 million in retirement contributions. This bankruptcy doesn’t appear to be disrupting recently ousted CEO Jeff Hoops from building a $30 million resort in West Virginia, however. 

In fact, this outright lack of responsibility from the coal bosses is business as usual. In 2012, Patriot Coal filed for bankruptcy. The United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) responded with huge concessions in employee pay and benefits, as well as cutting $130 million in retiree healthcare and benefits that were already promised. Their taste buds already whetted for concessions, and facing harsh market conditions, the coal bosses went to bat again in 2015. Patriot Coal again declared bankruptcy and auctioned itself to Blackhawk Mining. As part of the purchase, Blackhawk Mining refused to honor the terms of the mineworkers union’s contract. Blackhawk Mining abandoned Patriot’s nearly $1 billion of healthcare and pension obligations to the mineworkers, as well as $233 million in environmental cleanup costs.

Fast forward to two weeks ago, and Blackhawk Mining has declared a restructuring through bankruptcy which, if the recent past has told us anything, will almost certainly be paid for through robbing the mineworkers who did all the actual work. Indeed, the majority of coal mined in the U.S. is done by companies that have declared bankruptcy at least once (and usually more times) since 2015 alone.

For years, the coal industry has been declining dramatically in the face of the massive boom in natural gas extraction and renewable energy sources, as well as a huge drop in demand for coal as a result of the all-but-extinct use of coal for comfort heating in both the residential and commercial market. As a result of this, the coal companies have taken reckless action to lower their operating costs, in order to try and stay relevant in a market with cheap natural gas and renewables whose cost is steadily decreasing. They did so through automation of mine work, as well as pushing more and more for open-pit mining (which is much cheaper to operate and much more automated). They’ve done so through extracting concessions from the growingly jaded and out-of-touch United Mineworkers of America. Finally, they are now doing so by brazenly refusing to pay their bills. The mine operators are playing business like it is a child’s lemonade stand, and the miners who have sacrificed so much already are paying the bill against their will and at great personal cost. Truthfully, this behavior is no less than highway robbery.

Similar to the decline of the coal industry has been the decline of the populations it operated in. Harlan County was a sparsely populated place before coal mining started there in the early 20th century. By the 1940s, 75000 people lived there. Today less than 27,000 do so. The number of mineworkers employed in the county dropped off from more than 13,000 to less than 800 in the same period. The average lifespan of a Harlan County resident has actually gotten shorter between the 1980s and now, and they live on average ten years less than the average American. Unemployment in Harlan is double the national average. A similar story can be told across Appalachian coal country.

Against this backdrop, miners affected by Blackjewel’s bankruptcy heist in Harlan County, Kentucky are putting their collective foot down. The bankruptcy has left nearly a quarter of Harlan County miners out of work. For five days now, a group of miners has occupied the railroad tracks leaving from a mine. They are blocking a train loaded with coal (the train was only allowed to pass after it abandoned its load). Coal that they worked to get out of the ground. Work that they haven’t been paid for. Blackjewel intends to have its cake and eat it too: it intends to keep making money while the miners go without their pay. The group of miners blocking the rail say that they aren’t leaving until they get paid. “No Pay, We Stay” is their motto, and if they are successful in keeping that coal from being shipped to a buyer, then they may just get what is rightfully theirs.

By all accounts, nearly all of Harlan County is fired up about this madness. Even their politicians, heartless wretches that they are, have been pressured into showing up to the occupation to voice their support. 

International action on Just Transition: what’s been accomplished, and proposals for the future

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, September 27, 2017

Just Transition – Where are we now and what’s next? A Guide to National Policies and International Climate Governance  was released on September 19 by the International Trade Union Confederation, summarizing what has been done to date by the ITUC and through  international agencies such as the  ILO, UNFCCC, and the  Paris Agreement.  It also provides short summaries of some transition situations, including the Ruhr Valley in Germany, Hazelwood workers in the LaTrobe Valley, Australia, U.S. Appalachian coal miners and the coal mining pension plan, Argentinian construction workers, and Chinese coal workers.  Finally, the report calls for concrete steps to advance Just Transition and workers’ interests.

The report defines Just Transition on a national or regional scale, as  “an economy-wide process that produces the plans, policies and investments that lead to a future where all jobs are green and decent, emissions are at net zero, poverty is eradicated, and communities are thriving and resilient.” But the report also argues that Just Transition is important for companies, with social dialogue and collective bargaining as key tools to manage the necessary industrial transformation at the organizational level.  To that end, the ITUC is launching “A Workers Right To Know” as an ITUC campaign priority for 2018, stating, “Workers have a right to know what their governments are planning to meet the climate challenge and what the Just Transition measures are. Equally, workers have a right to know what their employers are planning, what the impact of the transition is and what the Just Transition guarantees will be. And workers have a right to know where their pension funds are invested with the demand that they are not funding climate or job destruction.”

The ITUC report makes new proposals. It calls on the ILO to take a more ambitious role and to negotiate a Standard for Just Transition by 2021, carrying on from the Guidelines for a just transition towards environmentally sustainable economies and societies forAll  (2015).   The ITUC also states “expectations” of how Just Transition should be given greater priority in the international negotiation process of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), so that:  Just Transition commitments are incorporated into the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of countries; Just Transition for workers becomes a permanent theme within the forum on response measures under the Paris Agreement, and Just Transition is included in the 2018 UNFCCC Facilitative Dialogue. It also calls for the launch of a “Katowice initiative for a Just Transition” at the COP23 meetings to take place in Katowice, Poland in 2018, “to provide a high-level political space”.  Finally, the ITUC calls for expansion of the eligibility criteria of the Green Climate Fund to allow  the funding of Just Transition projects.

Just Transition – Where are we now and what’s next? is a Climate Justice Frontline Briefing from the International Trade Union Confederation, with support from the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and is based upon Strengthening Just Transition Policies in International Climate Governance by Anabella Rosemberg, published as a Policy Analysis Brief by the Stanley Foundation in 2017.

A New Horizon: Innovative Reclamation for a Just Transition

By various - Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition, 2019

The certainty of an Appalachian transition has become self-evident. The questions that remain are “What shape will that transition take?” and “Will our region seize the opportunity to establish just and sustainable economic models that invest in our strengths and set the region up for meaningful and healthy participation in the new economy?” Foundational to our coalition’s work is the understanding that specific, targeted intervention is necessary to ensure that an equitable vision becomes reality.

Appalachia is at the threshold of a paradigm shift into the new economy, ushered in by communities that are taking their futures into their own hands like never before and implementing innovative ways to address long-standing economic issues with degraded lands. The table on page 6 shows funded projects illustrating this shift that have been supported by our coalition, ranging from ecotourism, renewable energy, arts and culture, and creative waste recycling.

This report highlights the successes achieved in 2019 from previously submitted projects and showcases a brand new round of innovative projects. We’re very excited about both the successes that have already been funded and implemented, as well as the new opportunities that are currently being considered for Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) Pilot funding.

Read the report (Link).

The Ruhr or Appalachia: Deciding the Future of Australia’s Coal Power Workers and Communities

By Peter Sheldon, Raja Junankar, and Anthony De Rosa Pontello - CFMMEU Mining and Energy, December 3, 2018

Australia’s coal-fired power stations will all close in the next two or three decades. We know this because the companies that operate the 23 power stations currently operating nation-wide have told us so.

Despite the empty rhetoric of some, it is unlikely that the economic case for investing in new coal-fired power stations in Australia will stack up. Those who currently own and operate coal power stations have no plans to build new ones.

The bad news is that the transition in how we produce power will bring great change to the workers and communities we have relied on to provide Australian homes and industry with reliable energy over many decades.

The good news is that we have the lead time to make smart decisions about what that change looks like—or at least, we now have the lead time after being caught unprepared by earlier closures, including Hazelwood in 2017.We have the choice to manage this structural economic change so that individuals, families and regions aren’t abandoned to unemployment, low-value jobs, poverty and associated health and social decline. Even better, we have the evidence about what works to deliver just transitions for coal power workers and communities, with skills, jobs, opportunities and hope for the future.

Communities grow around power stations and the mines that supply them. They are unique communities bonded in many cases by history, geography, difficult and dangerous working conditions and good unionised jobs. They are also uniquely vulnerable in their heavy dependence on the coal power industry.

This analysis of transitions in resource economies internationally and here in Australia provides valuable insights into the ingredients of success and the wide scope of outcomes.The Appalachian region in the United States is a heart-breaking story of industry transition characterised by short-term, reactive and fragmented responses to closures of coal mines, resulting in entrenched, intergenerational poverty and social dysfunction.

Compare this with the transition away from a heavy reliance on coal mining in Germany’s Ruhr region, where forward planning, investment in industry diversification, staggering of mine closures and a comprehensive package of just transition measures delivered a major reshaping of the regional economy with no forced job losses.

Central to these vastly different outcomes is the presence of a national, coordinated response. To this end, a major recommendation of this report is the establishment of a national, independent statutory authority to plan, coordinate and manage the transition.

In the energy debate to date, the impact of the transition on workers and communities has been almost completely ignored. This is an omission we can’t afford. After all, the costs of investing in a Just Transition need to be balanced against the costs of doing nothing and abandoning whole communities to a bleak future.

While global trends suggest that Australian export coal for steelmaking and energy production will be in demand for decades to come, coal-fired power generation in Australia is winding down. On the information available, there are no excuses for not taking action to protect the best interests of those affected.</p.

I thank Peter Sheldon and the team at UNSW Sydney’s Industrial Relations Research Centre for this important piece of work. I call on all power industry stakeholders to engage with its findings and consider how we can work together to deliver a Just Transition for coal power workers and communities.

Read the report (PDF).

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