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Appalachia

Appalachia Does Not Need More Fossil Fuel Greed

By Emily Satterwhite - DeSmog, May 31, 2022

A fossil fuel executive recently told Fortune, “Appalachia is the elephant in the room,” referring to the claim that demand for natural gas is rising, while supply in Appalachia and the United States is falling. Such corporate executives would like to see expansion of production in order to bail out their dying industry.

And Fortune’s interviewee is right. Appalachia is the elephant in the room. We need to talk more about the role of Appalachia in the country’s energy system. But what he gets wrong is that the future does not entail further dependence on fossil fuels. The future that Appalachia can and will lead is in renewable energy.

For over a century, this region has powered the country’s growth with our natural resources, including coal, gas, and oil. However, our communities have not seen the prosperity and health the fossil fuel industry continues to promise. Instead, we are suffering the impacts of pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and a boom-and-bust industry. It’s time to stop waiting for these corporations to fulfill their promises because, frankly, fossil fuels will never help the people of Appalachia. The only thing we can count on the industry to do is pollute, profit, and extract. 

Fossil fuel executives and their allies are using the devastating war in Ukraine to promote their industry in order to stuff their pockets with our hard-earned money, and the federal government has chosen to take their side. The liquified natural gas (LNG) industry is “unleashing” buildout to rake in global profits, leaving everyday Americans to pick up the increasing tab. I find myself asking: Is the federal government the people’s government, as they say they are? Or are they working for fossil fuel executives?

The people know that we must shift course to a renewable future that will bring our communities the jobs, health, prosperity, and safety we deserve. There are four reasons to do so: economic stability, cost savings, reliable jobs, and community health. 

The oil and gas industry is notoriously volatile. Prices rise abruptly, hurting consumers while executives continue to make a hefty profit. Renewable energy on the other hand, has proven to be much more stable in terms of price. At the end of April, renewables met nearly 100 percent of California’s demand for the first time, followed by 103 percent the following week.

The Ohio River Valley Hydrogen Hub: A Boondoggle in the Making

By Sean O'Leary - Ohio River Valley Institute, March 18, 2022

Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) torpedoed the Build Back Better bill because, he said, it is too costly. But the fleet of hydrogen hub projects he is now promoting for locations around the nation, one of them in the Ohio River Valley, may cost nearly as much, they will drive up utility bills and create few new jobs, and they will miss a large share of the emissions they’re supposed to eliminate. They will also block less costly climate solutions that can create more jobs and actually eliminate climate-warming emissions the hydrogen hubs would only partially abate. 

According to the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the hydrogen hubs, which have as their centerpiece massive pipeline networks that would funnel carbon captured from power plants and factories to injection points for underground sequestration, would cost between $170 billion and $230 billion just to construct. That figure is dwarfed by the additional investment in carbon capture technology that would have to be made by plant owners whose costs to operate and maintain their retrofitted plants would also rise significantly.

A recent Ohio River Valley Institute brief pointed out that retrofitting just the nation’s coal and gas-fired power plants for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) would add approximately $100 billion per year to Americans’ electric bills, an increase of 25%. The cost of adding CCS to steel mills, cement plants, factories, and other carbon producing facilities could be that much or more.

The Fossil Fuel Industry Is a Jobs-Killer

By Wenonah Hauter - In These Times, February 14, 2022

For years now, any discussion about climate action or the need to move off fossil fuels has run headlong into a familiar quandary: The industries fueling the climate crisis create good jobs, often in areas of the country where finding work that can support a family is incredibly difficult. 

This leaves activists gesturing towards well-intentioned goals like a ​“just transition,” a promise that likely rings hollow for workers and many labor unions because it’s hard to see where this has actually happened — even though, by every measure, we need to create some real policies that turn this vision into reality. While there are encouraging examples of labor unions throwing their support behind robust climate plans, it has proven difficult for the climate movement to find its way out of the jobs versus environment framing. 

But that is especially true when we refuse to question the original premise. The truth is that the fossil fuel industry wildly inflates its employment record, and the recent data show they are producing more fuel with fewer workers. Instead of avoiding this reality, perhaps it is time to tackle it head on. Dirty energy corporations are not creating jobs as much as they are cutting them these days, and that provides an opening to envision the kinds of employment — in areas like orphaned well clean up and energy efficiency — that will provide employment for the thousands of workers the industry is no longer employing. 

Some of the most common jobs estimates are produced by the American Petroleum Institute (API), the powerful oil and gas trade association. Over the years, API has released reports claiming that the domestic fracking industry creates somewhere between 2.5 million to 11 million jobs, both directly and indirectly. These numbers — or versions of them — are floated in political debates and in the media, but they are significantly out of step with other estimates, including the federal government’s labor reports. Food & Water Watch, an organization I founded, created a more accurate model that relies on direct jobs and relevant support activities, including pipeline construction and product transportation. The total comes to just over 500,000 in 2020, or about 0.4 percent of all jobs in the country. 

How to explain the massive gap between industry propaganda and reality? The API figures include a range of employment categories; in addition to direct industry employment, they add indirect jobs (those within a supply chain) and induced jobs (those that are supposedly ​‘supported’ by direct and indirect jobs). These categories make up the vast majority of their total. Convenience store workers, for example — working where gas happens to be sold — make up almost 35 percent of the industry’s supposed employment record.

What Germany’s Effort to Leave Coal Behind Can Teach the U.S.

By Alec MacGillis - ProPublica, January 31, 2022

In late September, just before the German parliamentary elections, the Alternative für Deutschland held a large campaign rally in Görlitz, a picturesque city of about 56,000 people across the Neisse River from Poland. I was making my way down a narrow street toward the rally when I entered a square that had been dressed up as Berlin circa 1930, complete with wooden carts, street urchins and a large poster of Hitler.

Görlitz, which was barely damaged in the Second World War, often stands in for prewar Europe in movies and TV shows. (“Babylon Berlin,” “Inglourious Basterds” and other productions have filmed scenes there.) It was a startling sight nonetheless, especially since, a few hundred yards away, a crowd was gathering for the AfD, the far-right party whose incendiary rhetoric about foreign migrants invading Germany has raised alarms in a country vigilant about the resurgence of the radical right.

In fact, at the rally, the rhetoric about foreigners from the AfD’s top national candidate, Tino Chrupalla, was relatively mild. Germany’s general success with handling the wave of more than a million refugees and migrants who arrived in the country starting in 2015 has helped undermine the party’s central platform. Chrupalla moved on from migrants to other topics: the threat of coronavirus-vaccination mandates for schoolchildren, the plight of small businesses and the country’s desire to stop burning coal, which provides more than a quarter of its electricity, a greater share even than in the United States.

Coal has particular resonance in the area around Görlitz, one of the country’s two large remaining mining regions. Germany’s coal-exit plan, which was passed in 2020, includes billions of euros in compensation for the coal regions, to help transform their economies, but there are reports that some of the money has been allocated to frivolous-sounding projects far from the towns most dependent on mining. Chrupalla, who is from the area, listed some of these in a mocking tone and told the crowd that the region was being betrayed by the government, just as it had been after German reuni­fication, when millions in the former East Germany lost their jobs, leading many to abandon home for the West. “We are being deceived again, like after 1990,” he said.

Such language was eerily familiar. For years, I had been reporting on American coal country, where the industry’s decadeslong decline has spurred economic hardship and political resentment. In West Virginia, fewer than 15,000 people now work in coal mining, down from more than a 100,000 in the 1950s. The state is the only one that has fewer residents than it did 70 years ago, when the U.S. had a population less than half its current size — a statistic that is unlikely to surprise anyone who has visited half-abandoned towns such as Logan, Oceana and Pine­ville. Accompanying the decline has been a dramatic political shift: A longtime Democratic stronghold, West Virginia was one of only 10 states to vote for Michael Dukakis in 1988; in 2020, it provided Donald Trump with his second-­largest margin of victory, after Wyoming, which also happens to be the country’s largest coal producer, ahead of West Virginia.

One Million Rounds: The Battle of Blair Mountain

By Vince Ceraso - The Socialist, August 29, 2021

When you think of violent labor disputes, which come to mind? For some, it may be the infamous 1886 Haymarket Affair, 1912 Lawrence textile strike (famously known as Bread & Roses), 1894 Pullman Strike, or something as modern as the 1991 Justice for Janitors police riot. But not many will recall the Battle of Blair Mountain, a week-long civil war that took place in West Virginia during the late summer of 1921. Some 13,000 mineworkers took on 3,000 law enforcement officials, military personnel, and the usual local scabs. Rather than take oppression sitting down, these miners put on their hard hats and geared up for war. However, despite the numbers, the miners suffered a crushing defeat and what resulted was the near collapse of the United Mineworkers of America. But how did it all begin?

In the spring of 1912, West Virginian mineworkers, who all lived in small towns near their respective coal fields, attempted to negotiate contracts with the mining companies to give them higher pay raises and union dues that would be automatic. As you might expect, negotiations fell through, resulting in 7,500 workers going on strike throughout West Virginia. Even local supporters who were not mineworkers joined in. This caught the unwanted attention of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, a private police force that was called to the task of using brutality, fear, and intimidation to break up strikes. To really send the message, the agents began evicting miners from their homes, for unionizing with the UMWA.

Eventually, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, co-founder of the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World, joined the strikers, but was later arrested for her involvement in the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike of 1912. In the early months of the year-long said strike, the miners issued their own declaration of war against the West Virginian government. Several instances of guerilla-style conflicts began to explode in Kanawha County, WV. Things got so bad that WV Governor William E. Glasscock placed the region under martial law. After a year of bloody combat, more than 50 people were reported dead. The Paint Creek-Creek Cabin strike was the beginning of a 9-year labor conflict, now famously referred to as the West Virginia Mine Wars.

Fast-forward to 1920. The Baldwin-Felts agents were at it again, ransacking homes and evicting miners and their families at the Pocahontas Coalfield in the town of Matewan in Mingo County, West Virginia. This time around, they came face to face with Sid Hatfield, the Matewan police chief and beloved labor organizer. Unlike the vast majority of cops in West Virginia, Chief Hatfield was very outspokenly pro-union, using his position of authority to protect striking workers. He confronted the Baldwin-Felts agents and threatened to arrest them, prompting the agents to brag about their own arrest warrants against Hatfield.

Over the years, the circumstances of what happened next have been debated, but according to official court transcripts published in David Alan Corbin’s Gun Thugs, Rednecks & Radicals: A Documentary History of the West Virginia Mine Wars, an eyewitness testified that Cabell Testerman, the mayor of Matewan, said outright that the detectives’ warrants were “bogus,” triggering an angry Albert Felts, one of the heads of the Baldwin-Felts agency, to pull a firearm from his briefcase and shoot the mayor, who died of his wounds minutes later. Immediately after, Hatfield began firing, and a firefight between him and the agents ensued. When the dust settled, one miner, an innocent bystander, seven Baldwin-Felts agents and Mayor Testerman lay dead, while several other townsfolk were wounded in the crossfire.

A Plan for Coal Workers as the Industry Declines

How laid-off coal miners are reclaiming their own economy

By Trevor Decker Cohen - Sharable, June 28, 2021

For generations, hundreds of thousands of West Virginia coal miners earned a good living. The money they made supported local economies in towns across Appalachia. And their labor down in deep mines brought light to the rest of the world.

But this prosperity came at a high price. Mountains were blown to pieces, rivers ran orange with mine tailings, and generations of miners suffered from black-lung disease. For over a century, the coal industry dominated the region’s economy and psyche, preventing much else from taking root. Now, it’s crumbling. Three of the four largest coal companies that mine half the coal in the US have gone bankrupt. There’s a gaping hole in parts of Appalachia where an economy used to be.

The transition away from extractive energy, dependent on a few commodities, is not as simple as retraining miners. “You can have training programs until you’re purple, but if you don’t have a place to work, it’s just kind of mean,” said Marilyn Wrenn, the development director at Coalfield Development. “It’s not like you can move out of coal mining and go work for the big data firm that opened up down the street.” Recovery from the legacy of coal’s decline requires a thorough regeneration of local economies from the ground up.

On one abandoned surface mine, a new story has emerged. A tractor dragged a piece of machinery, scraping its way along the scattered remains of a former mountain. A crew member pushed the accelerator, and a stone crusher chewed through the rubble. “It’s eating these rocks and turning it into garden soil—and it’s awesome,” said Eva Jones, who drove the tractor.

The machine was capable of crushing stones up to 16 inches in diameter, and in one day, could make up to three acres of soil. In the new dirt, another crew planted an orchard. It was a mix of blackberries, hazelnuts, lavender, and pawpaws. Sustainably managed chickens, hogs, goats, and honeybees grazed and pollinated the half-farm, half-forest. Over time, these practices will capture carbon in the soil and generate income for the local West Virginians who farm the former minelands.

These efforts were the work of two enterprises founded by nonprofit Coalfield Development—an organization that seeks to restore economic diversity in a region long beholden to the wealth of just one commodity. “Whether you think coal is a good thing or a bad thing, it’s not wise to have all your eggs in one basket,” said Coalfield’s founder, Brandon Dennison.

As the US Pursues Clean Energy and the Climate Goals of the Paris Agreement, Communities Dependent on the Fossil Fuel Economy Look for a Just Transition

By Judy Fahys - Inside Climate News, June 28, 2021

Perhaps the proudest achievement of Michael Kourianos’ first term as mayor of Price, Utah was helping to make the local university hub the state’s first to run entirely on clean energy. It’s a curious position for the son, brother and grandchild of coal miners who’s worked in local coal-fired power plants for 42 years.

Kourianos sees big changes on the horizon brought by shifts in world energy markets and customer demands, as well as in politics. The mines and plants that powered a bustling economy here in Carbon County and neighboring Emery County for generations are gone or winding down, and Kourianos is hoping to win reelection so he can keep stoking the entrepreneurial energy and partnerships that are moving his community forward.

“That freight train is coming at us,” he said. “You look at all the other communities that were around during the early times of coal, they’re not around.

“That’s my fear,” he said. “That’s my driving force.”

New research from Resources for the Future points out that hundreds of areas like central Utah are facing painful hardships because of the clean-energy transformation that will be necessary if the United States hopes to reach the Paris agreement’s goals to slow climate change. Lost jobs and wages, a shrinking population and an erosion of the tax base that supports roads, schools and community services—they’re all costs of the economic shift that will be paid by those whose hard work fueled American prosperity for so long. 

“If we can address those challenges by helping communities diversify, helping people find new economic growth drivers and new economic opportunities, that might lessen some of the opposition to moving forward with the ambitious climate policy that we need,” said the report’s author, Daniel Raimi, who is also a lecturer at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.

Meeting the Paris agreement’s target of keeping global temperature rise “well below 2 degrees C” by the end of the century means Americans must burn 90 percent less coal over the next two decades and half as much oil and natural gas, Raimi said.

And less fossil fuel use will also affect employment, public finances and economic development region-by-region, according to Raimi. In 50 of the nation’s 3,006 counties, 25 percent or more of all wages are tied to fossil fuel energy, he notes. In 16 counties, 25 percent or more of their total jobs are related to fossil energy.

Jobs and equitable transition: Bridging the chasm between rhetoric and action

By Sean O'Leary - Ohio River Valley Institute, May 26, 2021

There was a time when the sight of rows of office workers hammering away at their Friden adding machines would have sent me into paroxysms of delight because I, the Victor Comptometer salesman, had a new and better “programmable calculator” that could kick the Friden’s ass.

I was a young 1970s college graduate entering the workforce at the tail end of the era of mechanical business automation. Typewriters, adding machines, and mechanical cash registers were still the workhorses of stores and offices.

Behind all that machinery were companies – Burroughs, Monroe, Friden, Victor – whose names were as familiar then as Cisco, Oracle, and SAP are today. And those companies supported factories, sales offices, and repair facilities that provided living wage jobs to hundreds of thousands of workers and their families.

Then, within a little more than a decade, it was all gone. A year after I fizzled as a Victor salesman, I was playing at home with my new Radio Shack TRS-80 home computer and five years later, instead of an adding machine and typewriter on my desk at work, there sat an Apple II desktop computer, precursor to the Mac.

Gone too were those hundreds of thousands of jobs plunging not only workers and families, but entire communities, into financial crisis. One could argue that Dayton, Ohio, once home to National Cash Register and the business forms giant, Standard Register, never recovered.

The knock-out blow suffered by the office automation industry was as ferocious and sudden as the one that hit the American steel industry a few years earlier, the textile industry a few decades before that, and also as the one that possibly faces workers in the fossil fuel economy today.

So how did we as a society help displaced workers and communities manage the economic consequences of the transition from the mechanical workplace to a digital one? We didn’t. Thanks to the New Deal, we had unemployment insurance and Medicare and Medicaid were brand spanking new. But that was about it – a little help for individuals and families and none whatsoever for communities.

American Jobs Plan Can Accelerate Solar Power in West Virginia

By Autumn Long and Ted Boettner - Ohio River Valley Institute, May 25, 2021

As a recent article in Forbes noted, the ‘dam has broken’ in West Virginia for solar power. While solar energy comprises less than 0.2 percent of electricity production in the state today, the market for solar energy is marching forward. Despite not having a renewable energy portfolio standard – which would require that utilities get a certain percentage of the electricity they sell in the state from renewable resources – like 30 other states, West Virginia lawmakers have started opening more doors for solar power. For example, state lawmakers this year legalized purchase power agreements (PPAs) to allow third parties to own and operate solar installations for customers while charging them a fixed rate that is typically lower that what the customer pays for electricity. In 2020, the West Virginia Legislature created a utility solar program that allows the state’s investor-owned utilities (FirstEnergy and American Electric Power) to produce as much as 200 megawatts of solar electricity each.

A flurry of new solar projects is now under development in the state. Toyota announced plans to spend $4.9 million to construct a 2.6-Megawatt solar array at its manufacturing plant in Buffalo, West Virginia. In October 2020, the WV Public Service Commission approved plans for a $90 million investment to build a 90-Megawatt solar farm in Raleigh County. Earlier this year, a 100-Megawatt utility-scale solar project was announced at the former Dupont Potomac River Works manufacturing facility in Berkeley County. And earlier this month, Nitro Construction Services acquired local solar installation company Revolt Energy, with plans to expand operation throughout the state on former coal mine sites. Revolt had recently installed a 487-kilowatt rooftop solar array (1,200 solar panels) at Nitro Construction Services’ headquarters in Putnam County.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), West Virginia ranks last (50th) in solar production in the nation with just 11.2 megawatts of installed solar power and less than $35 million in total solar investment in the state. Total solar jobs in the state were just 311 in the 4th quarter of 2020, with 18 solar companies operating in the state. Between 2012 and 2020, the number of solar jobs in West Virginia has grown by 241.

An October 2020 report by E2 found that jobs in solar pay close to what jobs in the coal, oil, and gas industries pay, $24.48 an hour (median) compared to $24.37 an hour (median), respectively. Approximately 10 percent of solar industry jobs are unionized, according to the Solar Foundation, which is above the national average and similar to levels found throughout the construction industry. Wage data for solar employment is not available for West Virginia, but it is likely below the national average.

There are a number of policy proposals at the federal level that could lead to significant acceleration in West Virginia’s solar industry. President Biden’s American Jobs Plan includes two key provisions, including a 10-year extension of the federal solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC), which currently offers a 26% tax credit for solar installations, and an expanded direct cash payment in lieu of the ITC that allows solar owners to receive money even if they don’t have taxable income, much like a refundable tax credit. A cash grant option would ensure equitable benefits of the ITC are accessible to low- and moderate-income households, people with low tax liability, and nonprofit institutions such as schools, churches, local governments, and rural electric cooperatives.

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