America's coal country plans for life beyond the mine

With the US coal industry in a historic slump it may never fully recover from, coal communities around the country are grappling with how to create a sustainable economic future.

Mark Reis/The Gazette via AP/File
Raw coal from the Allen Mine pours off a conveyer belt, near Trinidad, Colo., September, 2011.

The coal industry has followed boom and bust cycles for most of its history, and the communities connected to coal have boomed and busted with it.

But there's a growing feeling in American coal country that this bust is different, and that communities long-reliant on the fossil fuel that powered the country’s industrial growth now need to find new businesses.

A number of factors have conspired to send the US coal industry into perhaps the worst downturn in its history—and unlike in the past, this one may have some permanence. Cheap natural gas and an increasingly affordable renewable energy market have chipped away at coal’s once monolithic market share, and a raft of new state and federal regulations cracking down on greenhouse gas emissions has made coal increasingly expensive to mine and burn. Four major US coal companies have declared bankruptcy in the past two years.

In southwestern Virginia, the heart of US coal production for generations, Duane Miller says the impact of the downturn on the region has been "catastrophic."

"In my 20-something years here in [southwest Virginia] it's been the biggest downturn we've had in the coal industry, to the point we're really trying to diversify the economy in our region," he adds in a thick Appalachian drawl.

And one of the challenges for Mr. Miller, deputy director of LENOWISCO, a planning district representing four counties in the region, is convincing the hardy coal miners of the region that the industry they grew up with may never be coming back—at least not to the heights of last century. 

"Traditionally, when we've had these downturns it's always come back, so it's ingrained in a lot of these folks that it'll come back," he says. "We've tried to re-educate a lot of people to say, 'Yes it may come back in one form or another, but we really need to start looking at other opportunities and other industries that we can bring into the area.' "

Coal communities across America are coming to terms with this challenge, says Martin Shields, director of the Regional Economic Institute at Colorado State University. In Colorado’s Western Slope region – a vast rural stretch west of the Rockie Mountains where much of the state’s coal production has centered – small coal towns are coming to the same realization.

"Places that are historically mining-dependent and isolated from population centers, they don't have a lot of large-scale employment options," says Professor Shields. "One alternative is health care, which is a growing industry in the West ... and the other is fostering small businesses, small entrepreneurs that might create 15 to 20 jobs at a time, rather than a couple hundred or more that might be in the mine." 

The first challenge for many of these communities is building the kind of basic infrastructure needed to attract new forms of business—everything from new roads to broadband Internet connections. 

Rio Blanco County in Colorado is working to address that exact problem. The vast, sparsely populated county derives tens of millions of dollars from the coal industry, but with coal production at a 20-year low statewide, the county is finding that it is poorly equipped to attract new business. It is now in the process of installing fiber optic cables across the county.

"The drive to do this project originated with the community itself," said Blake Mobley, the county’s IT director, in an interview with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

"They came to the [county] commissioners about a year and a half ago," he added. "[They said] we have businesses that have come in and looked in communities…[and] said we don’t have the bandwidth we need and we're not going to locate here."

In southwestern Virginia, Miller say that they count themselves lucky that they had some of these capabilities in place before the coal industry nosedived. Specifically, a lawsuit filed against major tobacco companies in the region in the 1990s led to more than $34 million being spent installing broadband across the region.

"We were very fortunate," he adds. "A lot of these areas don't have broadband, they don't have regional industrial parks like we have, they don't have economic development groups like we have that can go out and recruit to bring businesses in."

LENOWISCO is leveraging these existing capabilities to try and attract new businesses. The region attracted attention recently for hosting a drone delivery test run, where a drone manufacturing company delivered prescription medicine to a rural health clinic.

Communities around Appalachia are also seeking to boost their agriculture, advanced manufacturing, and tourism industries, and Miller wants southwestern Virginia to do the same.

"It would be OK to be the drone capital of the United States. We wouldn't turn that down by any means," he says, "but we want to focus on as many things as we can and diversify our economy." 

And these needs are beginning to drive communities in Appalachia to do something they have historically been reluctant to do: ask the federal government for help.

About two dozen communities in the region have passed resolutions calling on Congress to approve and allocate funds related to President Obama’s Power Plus plan, a feature of his 2016 budget proposal that would commit federal funds to helping coal communities diversify their economies.

"We're pretty self-reliant here in southwest Virginia," Miller says. "Any money to help us on our feet we'd like, but eventually we have to walk on our own. That's the coal miner attitude."

These calls for federal help have placed Appalachian communities in an awkward tension with some of their federal legislators. Two of the most powerful Republicans in Congress are from Kentucky – Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and Rep. Hal Rogers, who chairs the House appropriations committee – yet both politicians saying they will only release the funds if Obama revisits recent environmental regulations, including the much-criticized Clean Power Plan, they argue have hurt the coal industry.

Danielle Smoot, a spokeswoman for Representative Rogers's office, told the Lexington Herald-Leader in mid-August that any White House plan "about improving the quality of life for the people of coal country is not serious or credible without a legitimate proposal to revisit these wrong-headed, job-killing regulations."

The Herald-Leader editorial board wrote the next day that Rogers and McConnell "should set aside their partisan animosity toward Obama and put their weight behind getting the money owed to coal communities into the budget."

Adam Wells – coordinator of the economic diversification campaign at Appalachian Voices, a nonprofit environmental group – says there is a newfound urgency among coal communities to bring new employment opportunities to the area.

"People are really recognizing that coal is in a bust right now and it's never going to come back the way that it has before," he adds. "Today in Central Appalachia people are thinking about economic development and diversification in ways they weren't even a year ago."

The issue has even entered the 2016 campaign trail. On Thursday, Hillary Clinton, the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination, announced an ambitious $30 billion plan to help former coal workers secure their pensions and benefits and help coal communities diversify their economies. For Mrs. Clinton, it marks a notable turn from what she proposed during her failed presidential run in 2008, when she pushed for the government to help the coal industry clean up its production.

The economic transformation of American coal country is as much about future generations as it is about the current unemployed one, Miller says, including his 10-year-old children. [Editor's note: The original version inaccurately described Miller's children.]

"I would like nothing more than for them to finish their education here, get a degree somewhere, and come back here to southwest Virginia where they can be coal miner, or they can work in advanced manufacturing, or the technology business, and they can have all kinds of possibilities that they can explore," he says.

Miller notes that former coal workers have many skills that could be attractive to prospective employers, including expertise as welders, electricians, and programmers.

"We don't want to look at them as unemployed coal miners – we want to look at them as a work force of electricians and welders," he says.

"These are some of the smartest, hard-working people you'll meet," he adds. "It's not just a bunch of guys with picks."

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