West Virginia, We Should Be Worried

I am not a climate change denier, but I am a worried West Virginian.

I adhere to the science; the planet is warming, and carbon emissions must be reduced.  Last week’s virtual global climate summit demonstrated, once again, that world leaders all the way down to young school children are concerned about the planet and supportive of action.

So, that part is covered.

What about West Virginia? Where do we fit in and how will we be impacted?  Yes, that may be parochial, but frankly it is difficult to muster altruism about rising sea levels if the remedies are going to sink the Mountain State.

President Biden proposes cutting the nation’s carbon emissions by at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. To even come close to accomplishing that, the United States will have to shutter every coal-fired power plant and dramatically reduce reliance on natural gas to generate electricity.

The Biden plan suggests carbon capture could be used with coal and gas, but that technology is not yet viable at a commercial level. Additionally, environmentalists driving the greenest parts of the Biden proposal want to discard coal and gas on the ash heap of our energy history.

West Virginia is the second largest coal producer in the nation, behind Wyoming.  We have the fourth largest natural gas reserves of any state.  So, if the country moves rapidly away from carbon-based fuels, where does that leave us?

Last January, President Biden said, “We’re never going to forget the men and women who dug the coal and built the nation.  We’re going to do right by them and make sure they have opportunities to keep building the nation in their own communities and getting paid well for it.”

To his credit, Biden has followed up with a promise of federal money to “support jobs and economic growth in coal and power plant communities.” The first allocation is for $109.5 million, with a pledge of more to come.

The revitalization effort falls to the White House Interagency Working Group that will be headed by Brian Anderson.  That is encouraging since Anderson is a West Virginian and comes from a family of coal miners.

Anderson said on Talkline Friday that the Working Group has already identified nearly $38 billion in existing federal funding that could be used for infrastructure, environmental remediation, union job creation, community revitalization and jobs.

But typically, government programs are a poor substitute for private sector economic development. Anderson’s challenge will be to break  down the bureaucratic silos of the federal government to engineer a revitalization of not only the communities that have already been devastated, but also those towns and counties that will be hit hard by an anti-carbon future.

That is an enormous, possibly unachievable, challenge.

Liberal economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote last week, “it remains true that the 21st-century economy ‘wants’ to concentrate good jobs in major metropolitan areas with highly educated work forces. Promoting job creation in West Virginia or eastern Kentucky won’t be easy, and may be impossible.”

The epic struggle to reimagine the global energy economy is about the steps necessary to protect and preserve our habitat.  But it is also about places like West Virginia that will be in the wake of the transformation.

West Virginia, after giving so much to the nation’s energy needs for generations, finds itself caught in that upending flow and wondering where it will leave us.  There is good reason to worry.

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