West Virginians Aren't Climate 'Deniers,' But Don't Want U.S. Green Economy At Their Expense

Coal is woven into the fabric of West Virginia society.

There's even a coal miner on the state flag.

Undoing that won't be easy.

"It's almost impossible to grow up in West Virginia and not be impacted by the coal industry. It's economically, culturally, politically and socially dominant," Brandon Dennison, a West Virginia native and CEO of Coalfield Development, a not-for-profit located in Wayne, West Virginia that does personal, business and community development projects, told Newsweek.

"You've got several families that have mined for generations," he added, "and everywhere you look, there's coal trains, coal trucks, coal barges on the river, ads on radio, TV, etc."

Coal Mining Jobs Drop 15 Percent In
Coal is loaded onto a truck at a mine on August 26, 2019 near Cumberland, Kentucky. Eastern Kentucky, once littered with coal mines, is seeing that lifeblood rapidly slip away. It joins West Virginia and other Appalachian states that are working to reinvent their communities. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The region has a long and complicated history of powering the nation through coal. As mining exploded during the mid-19th century, it brought prosperity to the state and surrounding region.

But as more and more coal was extracted, the economic benefits were uneven. Nearby states grew larger, more diverse economies, while West Virginia continued to export power and rely on coal, Dennison said. The state was slow to invest in other economic opportunities and failed to diversify its energy infrastructure.

Despite the industry's two-decade long decline, recent data shows that nearly 10% of the state's annual GDP still comes from the coal industry. Over 85% of power in the state is generated by coal-powered plants.

Wyoming far and away leads all states in coal production, with more than 40% of the nation's volume. West Virginia is second with more than 12%. The fourth-poorest state in the nation, with more than 17% of its people living in poverty, the coal industry currently employs nearly 13,900 miners in the state, down some 33% from the 21,000 employed in 2010.

Many small towns in West Virginia, towns like Thurmond and Madison, used to be bustling centers of culture, transportation and commerce. Now they are little more than ghost towns, with their main streets abandoned and storefronts boarded up.

Residents, miners and coal officials worry that more of the same is to come if policymakers in Washington get their way.

"Practically all of the policies or legislative initiatives that are currently in play in Washington are very onerous and will devastate America's coal industry," Chris Hamilton, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, a trade organization that represents coal miners and coal mine production, told Newsweek.

He puts much of the blame on one political party.

"Some Democratic leaders have an absolute disdain for coal miners and coal mining, they believe it should be eradicated," he said. "Their biased view goes beyond any reasonable effort to want to control climate change."

Having started his career as a miner, and now with 50 years of industry experience, he argues that coal is vital to his state's economy.

"I don't believe that there's any other business or industry that's important or has quite the impact on every single West Virginian as the mining industry does," he said.

The state finds itself in an economic conundrum.

Dr. Eric Bowen, who teaches Energy Economics at West Virginia University, told Newsweek that although reducing carbon emissions benefits all seven billion people on the planet, the cost of doing so disproportionately impacts areas like West Virginia that are the primary sources of carbon-based fuels.

" If we decide to shut down all the power plants and coal mines tomorrow," he said, "we would put a lot of people out of work and have big impacts on places like West Virginia that are heavily reliant on these industries."

Understanding the history and context of West Virginia can help policymakers have more empathy and compassion, he said.

Natalie Roper, director of special projects for The Just Transition Fund, an organization with a mission to "create economic opportunity for the frontline communities and workers hardest hit by the transition away from coal," said a false choice is being created between the economy and the environment.

"These don't have to be issues pitted against each other," she told Newsweek. "It's so important for people to know that, as we're talking about an energy transition. That doesn't mean they won't have access to quality jobs. That can't be the choice people are grappling with."

Her organization's National Economic Transition Platform states that, "Coal facility closures, layoffs, and cuts to vital services are hitting the people and communities already facing a decades-long economic decline, a black lung epidemic, and environmental devastation."

Roper argues that those pushing for a national clean energy agenda must be aware of the particulars of certain regions, understand their perceptions and acknowledge the progress that has already been made.

"A lot of people are assuming that West Virginians don't care about the environment," Dennison said. "It's actually quite the opposite. It's likely we spend a lot more time in the natural environment than many of the folks in the cities who are criticizing us."

The building pressures from mine closures, job losses, ineffective retraining programs, and criticism from what he calls the "mainstream media" have alienated many West Virginians, Dennison said. This ultimately makes it harder to achieve consensus on a national climate agenda.

He was particularly incensed about the demonizing of West Virginia's public officials.

"Environmentalists who are writing these demeaning blogs and insulting social media posts," Dennison said, "folks who are singling our elected officials out as if they're particularly worse than other elected officials, they're not helping the environmental cause."

He said the negative coverage is only serving to make the situation worse.

"That is just deepening the frustration and bitterness," Dennison said. "It's proving the point of folks who say, 'Why should we trade our whole economy for these people that don't even care about us?'"

Hamilton told Newsweek that the coal industry has taken many steps to lower emissions, remove toxins and follow new regulations. But despite those efforts, others continue to villainize the industry and call for its elimination.

"It's a coerced conversion that we're witnessing," he said. "It's not like we're deniers. We are in favor of taking every step possible to reduce our carbon footprint, we just want to keep working while we're researching, developing these technologies and employing these carbon control measures."

Roper said that the solution to an overdependence on coal is to create a more diverse state economy. This will require active cooperation and understanding between climatologists, policymakers, the coal industry and local communities, she argued.

"If we've depended on a single industry, any downturn impacts everything,'' Roper said. "Having a diversified economy means that we can be more resilient with changes in industries. Having a diverse economy means that people can be whatever they want to be and that we can build an economy that works for everyone here."

This message is similar to that of Joe Manchin, the West Virginia senator who has borne the brunt of the blame nationally for derailing the energy portions of Joe Biden's infrastructure and clean energy plans.

Hamilton says Manchin still holds strong support among his constituents.

If you follow Joe [Manchin] closely, he's really speaking for all West Virginians," he said. "He is on top of his game here and has the facts and figures to support his position. He has very successfully argued that we need to innovate and not eliminate."

Dennison said that "climate change" has become a divisive term in his state, and has become highly politicized.

"If you polled all West Virginians and asked, 'Is climate change caused by human activity?' you would get a mixed response, just because of that term. But if you ask West Virginians, 'Are you concerned about clean air, clean drinking water?' Yes, most of us are. 'Are you concerned about increased flooding?' 'Do you think human activity is contributing to that?' I think most people say, 'Yeah.'"

But in the end, West Virginians know that time is running out on coal.

"The worst, the worst thing we can do for our state's economy is lie to ourselves and convince ourselves that our future is still with coal," he said. "But to expect our region to change the economy on a dime is asking a lot when a lot of the new jobs that come in to replace coal don't pay anywhere near as well."