A group created by President Joe Biden to tackle climate change released a report Friday that identifies Southern West Virginia as the area of the country most in need of focused federal investment because of its high dependence on coal and coal power plant jobs.
The report makes recommendations on how to revitalize the economies of coal and power plant communities.
Accompanying the report’s release Friday was a U.S. Department of Energy announcement of $109.5 million in funding to retain and create jobs in coal and other energy communities, including $75 million in funding to engineer carbon capture projects deemed critical by the United Mine Workers union to keep the coal industry afloat amid a national energy transition and $15 million for geothermal energy research projects at West Virginia University and Sandia National Laboratories.
The Interagency Working Group responsible for Friday’s report, co-chaired by National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy and administered by U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, highlighted the 25 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics areas of the country most affected by coal-related declines.
Five of them are in West Virginia: Southern West Virginia nonmetropolitan (No. 1); Wheeling (No. 3); Northern West Virginia nonmetropolitan (No. 11); Beckley (No. 23); and Charleston (No. 24). Eastern Kentucky nonmetropolitan and Southwest Virginia are No. 2 and No. 4, respectively.
The group recommended prioritizing these areas in the near term for investment using existing federal agency programs and funding from the fiscal year 2021 budget and federal COVID-19 stimulus package that Biden signed into law last month.
Existing federal programs, with potentially available funding totaling nearly $38 billion, could be used to provide immediate investments in those areas, the report notes. That could include grant funding for infrastructure projects, low-carbon technology innovation resources and financing programs for abandoned mine land and orphaned oil and gas well remediation in that total.
U.S. coal mining employment plummeted from more than 175,000 in 1985 to roughly 40,000 in 2020, according to the report — a 77% drop.
The report specifically highlights Boone County, noting that coal mining employed half the county in 2008, before coal mining and employment dropped by 80% during the next eight years.
The group staff recommended kicking off a listening tour within the next three months, during which a senior administration official would visit with community members in each of the 25 priority energy communities.
“Senior administration officials ... could lead town hall meetings in communities from West Virginia to Wyoming,” the report recommends. “The President and Vice President should also consider kicking off the tour. The goal would be to (a) hear directly from the people most impacted by transition, and (b) demonstrate that the federal government is listening.”
The group also concluded that it should create a subcommittee to support job-creating investments in coal and other energy communities by compiling a list of projects that stakeholders submit and identifying existing funds and technical assistance to support those projects.
“For generations, our coal miners have sacrificed their health and safety to mine the coal that forged the steel and provided the power that made the United States the greatest nation in the world,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said in a Department of Energy news release Friday. “I am encouraged to see President Biden acknowledge these contributions and start to allocate the resources that will be required to reinvest in these communities who have suffered huge job losses.”
The Interagency Working Group, which Biden created via executive order in January a week after taking office, also named Brian Anderson its executive director. Anderson, a longtime West Virginia resident, is director of the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, which focuses on environmental sustainability, including through carbon management technologies.
“Glad to hear that Brian Anderson will be heading this initiative,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., wrote Friday on Twitter. “More West Virginians need a seat at the table, and I’m confident that Brian will act in the best interest of the people of our state.”
Capito could not be reached for comment on the Interagency Working Group report.
WVU will use its geothermal energy research funding to explore year-round deep-direct-use heating and cooling on campus in preparation for the 2027 planned closure of the existing coal-fired cogeneration plant that supplies steam for the university, according to a White House press release.
The university will drill an exploratory well with a full logging and coring program to develop geothermal energy under the campus and will evaluate shallow reservoirs for energy storage, transitioning to a fully clean grid by 2035.
Energy transition advocates and coal community leaders hailed the Interagency Working Group report.
“In the face of deepening poverty and economic struggle here in coal country, speed is of the essence,” Brandon Dennison, CEO of the Wayne County-based economic revitalization nonprofit Coalfield Development, said in a statement. “So I sincerely look forward to partnering with these various agencies however possible to put people straight to work in good paying jobs that benefit our communities. It’s impressive how expansive this plan is. Multiple agencies throughout the federal government are called upon to advance positive, tangible development efforts. If executed well, this plan will no doubt improve thousands of lives for people living in coal-impacted places.”
“This report outlines a critical multi-agency approach with key investments that expand a much needed federal commitment to scaling successful local solutions in coal-impacted communities to continue building a future where people aren’t choosing between leaving home and the economic opportunity they deserve,” said Natalie Roper, executive director of Generation West Virginia, a statewide organization devoted to attracting young people to the Mountain State workforce.
Heidi Binko, executive director of the Just Transition Fund, a Virginia-based philanthropic initiative providing grants and other support to communities looking to transition from coal, noted in a statement that transitioning rural and tribal communities have been largely left out of the economic prosperity in the country they powered for generations.
“It’s encouraging to see the Biden administration take meaningful, immediate steps to address the challenges of the energy transition, and do so in a way that’s guided and informed by the workers and communities most affected by these changes,” Binko said. “We’re hopeful the administration will continue to build on the innovative solutions crafted by the communities who built the backbone of America to create the brighter economic future they deserve.”
The UMW, which touted carbon capture technology and targeted coalfield community development funding in its own coal job preservation plan released this week, could not be reached for comment on the Interagency Working Group report.