CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- State Senate President Jeff Kessler on Tuesday kicked off a forum on diversifying West Virginia's economy with a push to create a "future fund" that would set aside tax dollars from the Marcellus Shale natural gas boom for improving education, infrastructure and economic development.
Kessler, D-Marshall, said that West Virginians should not waste any more time before truly preparing for the decline in the state's coal industry.
"Coal has been king in West Virginia for 100 years, but it hasn't taken very good care of its subjects," Kessler said, noting that counties with the largest historic coal production are among West Virginia's poorest communities.
Kessler made his remarks during a keynote speech at the start of a forum called, "A Bright Economic Future for West Virginia," that continues today at the Clay Center in Charleston.
The event is sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy and aims to highlight and foster discussions of how the state can diversify its economy.
Marion County native Jeremy Richardson, a physicist and fellow with UCS, put together the forum as part of a project exploring cultural and economic drivers of coal production in West Virginia. Richardson, who comes from a coal-mining family, is trying to help develop paths for a more environmentally and economically sustainable future.
The agenda features a variety of speakers from businesses, organized labor, the religious community, nonprofit organizations and educational institutions.
Sessions include a 90-minute discussion of what participants hope West Virginia will look like in 30 years, a focus on workforce training, creation of a "future fund," and a view of what "sustainable economic development" could become in the state.
The event this evening also includes a showing of "Hollow," the interactive documentary film that explores the history, present and future of McDowell County through the eyes of the people who live there. Filmmaker Elaine McMillion will lead a discussion that's scheduled to include several McDowell residents.
While the forum's agenda doesn't include specific sessions on coal's impact on global warming or how greenhouse gas reduction policies would affect the industry, climate change's relationship to West Virginia is a major backdrop for the discussions.
In a separate talk at the event, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant also supported more efforts to diversify the state's economy, but also highlighted her participation in a visit to Washington in which West Virginia Democrats complained about the Obama administration's coal policies.
"Some people may want to look at coal as a fuel of the past, but it still has to be looked at as part of any national energy strategy," Tennant said. "There's absolutely no reason we can't figure out a way to sequester carbon and make it work commercially."
Tennant said she supports more federal funding for research and development of greenhouse gas controls for power plants, but did not mention whether she favors or opposes a federal mandate for emissions reductions -- a requirement most experts say is needed to push utilities to install those emissions controls.
Like Kessler, Tennant also spoke strongly in favor of the state trying to continue the boom in Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling and production, but said more needs to be done to ensure the jobs that are created go to West Virginians.
Kessler, though, said he doesn't mind if workers move to West Virginia to take those jobs, as long as they buy homes, raise children and pay taxes here, and help reverse the state's long-term population decline.
"That's exactly what we need," Kessler said. "We need more people. We especially need more young people."
Kessler's home county remains the state's largest coal producer, and West Virginia's northern coalfields are expected to fare better in coming years than operators in the southern part of the state.
And in his speech, Kessler said that coal mining certainly isn't going to end overnight. But he noted the overall decline in both coal and steel and said state leaders need to stop simply trying to fight for industries that will never again be as big as they once were.
"You can have all of the 'Stand up for Steels' and 'Wars on Coal' that you want, but they're not coming back," Kessler said. "I don't think that's realistic."
In each of the last two years, Kessler introduced legislation to divert a portion of the increased tax revenues to a fund set aside to help economic diversification efforts. But Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has not voiced any serious support for the proposal, many industry officials have remained wary of it, and lawmakers haven't gone along with the idea.
Kessler said he's hoping to get more support this year, after taking a delegation of West Virginia lawmakers to North Dakota to study that state's version of a future fund.
"That's not conservative," Kessler said of setting aside money for future diversification needs. "That's not liberal. That's just financial sense."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.