CRMW's Sustainable Energy and Economic Diversification Program works toward our vision of a post-coal future for West Virginia. For decades, the coal industry has had a strangle-hold on the economy and politics of southern West Virginia. The coal industry controls the resources and so the vast mineral wealth of the region flows to outside landholding corporations and coal corporations at the expense of community health and safety.
Without economic alternatives, the coal-producing counties are kept dependent upon the industry for jobs and see few other options for the future of the region. Coal has historically kept this region poor; the coal-producing regions are some of the poorest counties in the country. In Boone County, the largest coal-producing county in the state, about 40% of the workforce is employed in the mining industry. But coal production in central Appalachia is in sharp decline; coal production is expected to decline 40% from 2010-2015 (US Energy Information Administration, 2010 Annual Energy Outlook). With the coal industry pulling out of the region, there is an urgent need for other economic options.
The coal industry has created serious barriers to sustainable energy and economic diversification. Most obviously, the destruction of land and water by mountaintop removal mining and other irresponsible mining practices has ruined land that would otherwise be suitable for agriculture, sustainable forest products, wind energy, and other development. Although the coal industry frequently touts the “benefit” of mountaintop removal in improving the land for other economic uses, in fact only about 10% of former mountaintop removal sites have been converted into anything other than barren wasteland. Another factor that both enables mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia and hinders the development of economic alternatives to coal is absentee land ownership. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, as the railroads moved into Appalachia, outside business bought up vast tracts of surface and mineral rights from local mountaineers who were often illiterate and didn't realize the value of the coal and mineral resources that their land held. According to the last comprehensive study of land ownership patterns in Appalachia, done in 1981, nearly 60% of West Virginia's land is owned by landholding corporations; the percentage is even higher in coalfield counties. These landholding companies don't pay their fair share of property tax, leading to lower tax revenues for the counties. This also makes it impossible for communities to have access to the mountains for community energy development and other economic alternatives.
CRMW sees sustainable energy development as crucial to both economic diversification and challenging the mentality that the only future for West Virginia is coal. In southern West Virginia, residential electricity rates have risen 50% since 2006, largely driven by volatility in coal prices and increasing costs of coal-fired electricity. This part of the state also suffers from old and inefficient housing stock, which for the most part has never been weatherized. An investment in energy efficiency would create jobs in weatherization that cannot be out-sourced, as well as helping people save money on their utility bills. In the long-term, we envision sustainable, locally owned sources of renewable energy generation, in stark contrast to the coal mono-economy that has extracted wealth from this region for decades.
Coal River Mountain Watch's SEED program is beginning to address these issues in the following ways:
- We work with the Energy Efficient West Virginia coalition, which is advocating for stronger energy efficiency and demand response programs in the state – both through the legislature and the Public Service Commission (the agency that regulates the utilities).
- We are working on a community wind project that, if successful, would both showcase an alternative to coal and provide a new source of revenue to the local community.
- We are beginning to map land ownership patterns in West Virginia's coalfield counties to show the extent to which the coal industry literally owns southern West Virginia.
- We are in the process of developing a campaign around economic diversification … check back in a few months!
- In the past, the SEED project conducted listening projects with local residents to better understand their ideas for sustainable, locally-based economic options. These projects led to the formation of two independent community organizations.
- We are a sponsor of the “Build It Up West Virginia” summer program that gives West Virginia youth the opportunity to work side-by-side with grassroots groups who are pioneering community sustainability projects.
The SEED project is in need of long-term volunteers to make these projects happen.