More than 20 years ago, I sat in Riggleman Hall at the University of Charleston to listen to both Sen. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller. Many people associated with the fossil fuel industry were also in the audience.
Our senators told us that times were changing and the industry needed to adapt. They told industry and government leaders to imagine a West Virginia not reliant on fossil fuels and plan for a different future.
Sadly that planning did not occur and the future is now. Market forces have rendered obsolete the industry that created good paying jobs in West Virginia for nearly a century, leaving behind economically struggling families and financially starved county and municipal governments. Recent census population data confirm the tragic consequence of our failure to plan for and invest in a transition to a life after coal.
In the past decade, West Virginia lost a greater percentage of its population than any other state in the nation. The growing threat of climate change to industries such as agriculture, the physical survival and safety of many communities, as well as the public and personal health of our people, have made the need to move away from fossil fuels to cleaner forms of energy a critical public policy issue.
Fortunately, help is on the way. Congressional approval of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and the potential passage of the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package will yield significant new funding for states, counties and cities. Our job is to make sure that the Appalachian region, and West Virginia in particular, receive a fair share of these funds. As the United States transitions to new fuel sources, a truly fair share must recognize and value the costs that West Virginia absorbed in being a primary supplier of energy to the nation for many decades.
In the past year, researchers, union leaders, environmentalists, public officials and thoughtful citizens of the four states of West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania came together to imagine what such a future should look like. This group, called Reimagine Appalachia, created the framework for a plan that calls for public investment to address climate change and provide good-paying jobs.
The plan provides fossil fuel workers with genuine opportunities for good-paying job and benefits. It also focuses on lifting people out of poverty and rebuilding the middle class.
A study from the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst asks us to imagine the kind of investment needed and the kind of jobs that can be created in West Virginia. These investments include:
n $520 million to restore our damaged lands and waters and create 3,380 new direct and indirect jobs.
n $2.73 billion in public and private investment to modernize the electric grid, get affordable broadband into every community and home and create 15,750 good jobs.
n $505 million in public and private investment to expand manufacturing, repurpose shuttered coal plants turning them into eco-industrial parks creating 1,930 jobs.
n $690 million in public and private investment to build a more sustainable transportation system by laying rail and expanding infrastructure for electric vehicles and create 8,280 new jobs.
n $760 million in investment to launch a new Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) creating 11,612 new jobs. A 21st Century CCC can be a path to cure our social ills by providing jobs, health care and training for those who have been opioid addicted or otherwise need a path to re-entry into workforce. A 21st Century CCC can improve the health, increase self-esteem, and obtain financial independence setting workers on the way to skilled work.
Federal investment with an annual average allocation of $1.6 billion to West Virginia, from now to 2030 and an additional leveraged investment of $3.6 billion from the private sector can be a game changer for our state. These investment would generate about 41,000 new jobs and bring West Virginia’s unemployment rate down to 3%.
The world’s richest nation can afford to spend $1.6 billion in West Virginia over the next nine years to clean up the damage of our industrial economy and the costly effects on our people.
Following World War II, the USA spent $13 billion ($90 billion in today’s dollars) through the Marshall Plan to repair the damaged economies of Western Europe. Within a decade of total devastation of its economy and infrastructure and the loss of millions of lives, Germany was again a thriving nation. If we can do it for Germany, surely we can do it for Appalachia and the rest of the USA. In fact, we deserve it and we must demand it.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has suggested that $3.5 trillion maybe too much. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., is worried that we won’t spend the money wisely.
I urge both of our senators to consider the cost of doing nothing. A big investment now will support good-paying jobs and a clean sustainable environment. It will mean a brighter future for our children, who are facing the possible devastation of our planet. It is up to us to make sure the money is spent wisely in the public interest and for a sustainable future.
The next two months are a critical time for our future. I urge all West Virginians to imagine a different future and to ask our representatives in Congress to find the will and the courage to invest major new resources in our state. With these resources we can have good paying jobs and thrive in the wild and wonderful place that we want our state to be.