Can you have your cake and eat it, too? Policymakers concerned with preserving economic output while furthering the clean energy transition in Appalachia’s once-booming coal industry are looking to do just that. A portion of the bipartisan infrastructure bill that has been making its way through Congress looks to combat pollution while assisting with the country’s economic recovery. As federal lawmakers continue to examine new policy ideas that can simultaneously support job growth and promote a sustainable and thriving environment , it appears as though a portion of the proposed $95 billion in energy technologies and infrastructure funding will do just that.
An estimated $11.2 billion provision of that bill will be directed to a long-term cleanup operation of defunct coal mines in the Appalachian region that includes West Virginia, Ohio, and Virginia, in addition to being used to reauthorize the Abandoned Mine Lands fund. West Virginia senator Joe Manchin, who also serves as chairman of the same Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that is responsible for drafting the $95 billion legislation, sees the program as a big win for a region looking to speed up its transition to cleaner energy sources. “This significant investment will create new jobs and demonstrate the energy technologies needed to reduce emissions while maintaining our nation’s position as a global energy leader,” said Manchin, touting his home state’s longstanding importance to America as the “backbone” of the nation’s economy.
Under the proposal, states will have until 2036, or 15 years, to utilize the funding, indicating that the cleanup operation is going to be a significant undertaking. But advocates have spoken optimistically that a cleanup of this size would undoubtedly bring proportionate job creation, and is expected to create as much as $7 billion in economic activity along with 2,700 new jobs between the three states. These are jobs that, like the timeline indicates, should be around for years on end, rather than the shorter-term construction jobs many West Virginians might come to expect from “clean energy job creation” headlines. In West Virginia alone, the program is anticipated to create 1,700 new jobs and stimulate an additional $4.3 billion in economic production. Ohio could see nearly 700 new jobs and $1.8 billion in economic activity. And Virginia will also benefit from the program with an additional 300 new jobs and $790 million. “It would provide a crucial economic stimulus to communities hit hard by the decline of coal,” says Joey James, principal of Downstream Strategies, a Morgantown, WV-based research group which generated the economic report.
If signed into law, a top priority stemming from the program will be ensuring that these new jobs are targeted to unemployed energy and coal workers – providing gainful employment opportunities for workers in these regions will help mitigate the potential negative economic impact on these communities as more states diversify their clean energy portfolio. “It is a huge opportunity, a big infusion of resources,” says Angie Rosser, who works as executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. “Here is a way we can make up for the job loss of our coal workers.”
There is some speculation that this transition could be assisted by the United Mine Workers of America union, as a practical way of guaranteeing that those cleanup jobs are given to miners. The union has shown initiative in the process, earlier this year releasing a report with a roadmap for how the coal-heavy region should go about navigating the renewable energy transition with minimal damage to the economy. One of the report’s top priorities? Hefty cash injection into the Abandoned Mine Lands fund, something Rosser fully supports. “I see it as a strong down payment to help us get caught up.”