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Four years ago, Chris Hamilton, presented presidential candidate Donald Trump with a hard hat onstage during a rally at the Charleston Civic Center.

“We wish you the best of luck and vow to support you the best we can,” Hamilton, senior vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association.

Trump’s administration subsequently repealed the carbon pollution-focused Clean Power Plan that West Virginia sued to stop, lifted a 2016 moratorium on federal coal sales and selected a former coal industry lobbyist to run the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Now Joe Biden is president-elect, having made restoration of environmental regulations passed under Barack Obama a centerpiece of his campaign. Biden has pledged to to guide the U.S. to a 100% clean energy economy and net zero emissions by 2050. He also wants to use renewables to produce carbon-free hydrogen at the same cost

“We have seen natural growth and a lot of growth within our renewable portfolio nationwide and even here in West Virginia,” said Hamilton. “So you have that already under way. But for President-elect Biden to indicate that he wants to accelerate that, then the concern of putting West Virginian miners out of work quickly comes to the surface.”

Conservationists such as West Virginia Environmental Council President Linda Frame sees opportunity, especially given the downturn that fossil fuel industries have taken amid the economic crisis stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think that’s a window for introducing renewables as a more viable or equally viable way to create jobs and make us energy independent,” Frame said. “Give people who work in the coal industry another option, and give us another way to go in our future.”

But coal is still a vital component of West Virginia’s economy and still keeps the lights on here. Coal-fired electric power plants accounted for 91% of West Virginia’s electricity net generation in 2019.

“It’s what we do,” Hamilton said. “We’re the energy state.”

Much of the rest of the country is moving on from coal. Coal accounted for just 23% of the nation’s net electricity generation overall last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Thirty states, Washington, D.C., and three territories have adopted a renewable portfolio standard, which requires that a specified percentage of the electricity that utilities sell comes from renewable resources, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. West Virginia repealed its renewable energy portfolio standard in 2015.

Average coal mining employment in Appalachia fell from 55,632 in 2006 to 30,254 in 2019, a nearly 46% drop in just 13 years.

Renewable energy production and consumption reached record highs in 2019, driven mainly by record high production from solar and wind energy. Fossil fuels composed about 80% of total U.S. primary energy production last year.

The time is now to pivot toward renewable energy, said James Van Nostrand, director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at West Virginia University.

“Do we elect leaders that … tell us what we want to hear or do we elect leaders that have some courage and recognize the inevitable transition that’s going to happen?” Van Nostrand said. “The question is, are we going to be on board? Are we going to position ourselves to take advantage of the new opportunities?”

Biden has said his climate plan would provide new opportunities for workers impacted by an energy transition, calling for an investment in affected coal and power plant communities. His call for a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and intent to fund direct cash rebates and low-cost financing to upgrade and electrify home appliances and install more efficient windows could threaten the natural gas industry.

“It’s too early to see what the Biden administration amounts to,” Independent Oil & Gas Association of West Virginia Executive Director Charlie Burd said. “We’ve only heard what they say they’re going to do. All we can do now is see what they actually do.”

State Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, said Biden’s election has made economic diversification in West Virginia even more important.

“It does make it more urgent that we diversify so we can capture as many of those new jobs as possible in West Virginia because they’re going to go somewhere, and we want them to come here,” Hansen said.

Hansen was the lead sponsor of a bill that unanimously passed the House of Delegates earlier this year that would have established a coal and timber transition advisory committee that would create a plan for a “just transition” for communities hardest hit by an energy shift.

“The plan would look at what types of federal and private resources and programs would help the most in terms of diversifying our economy,” Hansen said. “That could be powerful to go to Congress and say, here’s our plan for what we think a just transition would look like, let’s make this part of the climate bill you guys are negotiating. It’s very different than having people in D.C. decide what people in West Virginia want from inside the Beltway. It’s way better to come from us.”

But it’s not likely to come at all from coal supporters like Hamilton who see a transition away from fossil fuels as an existential threat.

“We’re very concerned looking forward if the president of this country is Joe Biden,” Hamilton said. “I don’t think there’s any question about that.”

Reach Mike Tony at

mtony@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1236 or follow

@Mike__Tony on Twitter.

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