In the heart of Appalachia, in places like West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, life has long been built around coal, figuratively and literally. In the early 20th century, coal companies founded towns in the rugged and steep interiors of West Virginia to hold their workforces. But coal—and the traditional idea of coal country with it—is dying. Markets have embraced cheaper or cleaner alternatives. Natural gas has surpassed coal as the country's largest source of net electricity generation. Renewables are projected to increase by 72% by 2040. After years of coal booms and busts, "this is final," says Gwendolyn Christon, the owner of the IGA grocery store in Isom, Kentucky, and one of the many locals we spoke to in a trip across the region to document the future of coal country. "If we’re gonna stay here and prosper, we have to start looking for other ways of making a living. You have to do that quickly and not just sit back and wait for something to happen. It’s not going to depend on the federal government or someone coming in to rescue us. It’s going to be us going to work and doing it ourselves."
Throughout 2016, the decline of coal has been used as a political football, a metaphor for the damage done by liberal, environmentalist regulation to the working class. Hillary Clinton, who said that her energy plans would "put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business," lost enormously across Appalachia. Donald Trump, both during the campaign and since his victory, has promised to save the coal industry with energy reform that rescinds environmental efforts like Obama's Climate Action Plan; he’s also spoken of abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency, and there is concern he will ignore international climate agreements. In West Virginia, the newly elected Democratic governor, Trump-esque billionaire coal baron Jim Justice, is noncommittal on the existence of climate change and has pledged to "promote new uses for coal," incentivize power plants to use only West Virginia coal and bring back coal jobs. But economics might be a stronger force than rhetoric: Even with the prospect of supportive federal and state administrations, many power company executives—including ones in Appalachia—are declaring that coal is simply too cost-ineffective, and are continuing with plans to shut down their coal-fired power plants.
But while coal country happens to be in the political spotlight today, the region is not unique in its susceptibility to the problems in which it finds itself. The 20th century has seen countless regional economies built on extractive and polluting industries that have been decimated by technological advancement and globalization: manufacturing in the Rust Belt, the auto industry in Detroit, the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest. As the coal industry dies—and make no mistake, it is dying—some in Appalachia are still clinging to a past that can’t save them, but many others are trying to find a way to create a new economy, focused on a future where the communities of Appalachia are more self-sustaining. In driving through the region this fall, we discovered that the lessons they’re learning and sharing will be vital as more and more industries—and the economies they support—fall victim to the same forces that are ending coal. The innovative web of entrepreneurs, community organizations, and government programs in Appalachia can serve as the model for the transition to a new economy for any community.
In places like West Virginia, where my colleague Elaine McMillion Sheldon and I are from, coal is a foundational part of the cultural identity. So much so that on a rainy day this August, when we drove past a modest lot of used cars on West Virginia's Route 19, the sign that loomed above it seemed completely normal: King Coal Pre-Owned Super Store. It might have held a certain significance now, as we crisscrossed West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, but we have driven by this sign and others like it dozens of times in our lives. To grow up in the heart of Appalachia is to internalize this narrative, whether your family has worked in the mines for generations (as in Elaine's case) or it hasn't (as in mine). Coal is king. Friends of coal. Coal keeps the lights on—until it doesn't.
Listen to a short audio documentary introducing you to this trip to document the new economy of coal country:
The coal economy has been many things in and to Appalachia—pride, livelihood, environmental villain, political juggernaut—but it has never been particularly resilient. While U.S. coal production was on an overall increase from 1949 to the mid-2000s, that rise was peppered with spikes and plateaus, as well as fluctuations in the labor force. In the mid-20th century, mechanization and consolidation in the coal industry sent jobs plummeting. West Virginian mining jobs dropped from 125,000 to 65,000 between 1947 and 1954, eventually hitting 41,000 in 1968, which was at the time a 65-year low. (This era also marked a large regional migration to northern industrial cities, often referred to as the "Hillbilly Highway." Between 1940 and 1960, 7 million Appalachians left.) Eastern Kentucky’s production experienced sharp downward spikes in the late 1950s and '80s, West Virginia in the early '90s and early 2000s. Coal has always brought booms as well as busts.
There is much evidence to suggest that Appalachia’s last boom has come and gone. Even without the rise of renewables, the bottom has fallen out of the coal market. The driving force in the decline of U.S. coal production is the booming shale gas market. Last year, for the first time, natural gas surpassed coal as the country's largest source of net electricity generation. And coal from the western United States—where coal is generally cheaper and mined less labor-intensively in surface mines—is supplanting Appalachian coal. (The country's biggest coal producer today is, by far, Wyoming.) Global exports, which account for an estimated 27% of West Virginia’s coal production, are also down.
Coal production here has been in overall decline since 1990, dropping by 45% between 2000 and 2015; in eastern Kentucky, production has plummeted by 80%. West Virginia, Appalachia's biggest coal producer, produced 168 million short tons in 2008. If this year's output continues at pace, that number is expected to hit 68 million, the state's lowest annual output in a century. Long-term forecasts are similarly low: the West Virginia University Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER) projects state coal production to fall to fewer than 67 million short tons by 2036. (Back in 2009, Charleston Gazette-Mail writer Ken Ward Jr., long an important voice in this conversation, pointed out that the Appalachian Basin could hit "peak coal"—the point of maximum production, after which it’s all downhill—as early as 2020.) Between 2000-2015, Appalachia lost more than 9,300 coal jobs, and major mining companies like Alpha Natural Resources have filed for bankruptcy, leaving behind devastated livelihoods and devastated earth. WVU's BBER sees only .5% job growth in the state’s natural resources and mining sector (with all of those jobs coming in natural gas) over the next five years; it expects coal industry employment to contract by an average annual rate of 2% per year through 2021.
From the outside, coal's dethroning to cheaper, cleaner alternatives may seem inarguable. But the reason for coal's demise has been something of a debate, especially to those who believe that its only real problem is the Obama administration and a liberal, Environmental Protection Agency-led war on coal. (In fact, while compliance with the carbon-emissions-reducing Clean Power Plan contributes to decreased coal production, the U.S. EIA found that Appalachia would actually see the country's smallest CPP-attributable drop.) So when Elaine and I set out to document the efforts underway in Appalachia's transitioning economy, we knew that we could not presuppose that everyone believed such a transition was happening. The first question had to be not how is Appalachia transitioning, but is it?
On our travels through West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, we heard just one person refer in earnest to a war on coal. We heard many others—economists, community development leaders, small-business owners, ex-miners—say that the moment of transition had arrived. That there was no going back. That coal might still be mined, some miners might keep their jobs, but the industry would never again be what it once was. To say good-bye to coal—even if just to say good-bye to its halcyon days—is a profound spiritual and emotional decision for a people who have watched their family members work, suffer, and die underground, who have loved and taken deep pride in the community coal created. One person invoked the stages of grief, several others mentioned post-traumatic stress disorder. It's hard to overstate—and perhaps, to outsiders, hard to explain at all—the mental shift that this economic change represents, and the reevaluation of identity it prompts.
It creates an opportunity, but it also creates a vacuum. For decades in West Virginia, for instance, the economy has been dominated by largely absentee companies that have, in essence, extracted twice: first resources, then profit. Relative to the wealth of coal moguls like Don Blankenship, the disgraced Massey Energy CEO (currently serving a one-year sentence for conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards in the Upper Big Branch disaster that killed 29 miners) and governor-elect Justice, little of coal's prosperity has touched the people whose land it came from or who toiled to get it out, save for the new vehicles and homes bought with coal salaries and so easily repossessed after layoffs came to town. One possible outcome of an imbalance like this is the sense that one is living in a feudal state—that, when those lords leave, others need to come in to take their places. Much of the work being done by economic development groups around Appalachia starts with reversing this idea and helping people see the possibility, and opportunity, within themselves and their home.
But this is less a story about coal’s decline than it is about what the people left in the wake of that descent can do after to quickly strengthen economic muscles that atrophied while coal grew more and more powerful. The decline of coal brings unprecedented opportunities to build lasting, meaningful economies. Here, in a place largely without the urban centers that traditionally attract the likes of Google and Uber, it is a chance to find new ways to utilize potential, to reinvent the rural economy into something multifaceted and resilient.
All around Appalachia, people are trying to harness that possibility and realize that opportunity for as many people as possible, by trying to figure out how to both capitalize on their strengths in new areas and improve existing economic sectors (and how to do both fast). In some places, these efforts have the flash of millennial innovation (life sciences businesses, tech startups), and in others (auto shops, aerospace mechanics) they don't. They involve new ideas and existing infrastructures, young people who are just starting their careers, and people who have had to figure out, in the middle of their lives, how to start over.
These efforts are encouraging—as are the modest drops in forecasted unemployment rates in both West Virginia and Kentucky, led by construction, professional, and service sectors—but they exist within a context of systemic, pervasive challenges. The decline of coal has affected not just those who work in the industry, though they are undoubtedly hit the hardest, but also those who work in transportation, as metal fabricators, even at shopping malls. Entrepreneurship is a major tenant of a diversified Appalachian economy, but Appalachian entrepreneurs often lack access to capital; there is not a single venture capital firm in the state of West Virginia, which Forbes has declared the worst state in the country in which to do business. An average of 29% of the population of Eastern Kentucky is below the poverty line; in West Virginia, it’s 18%. West Virginia had the country's highest percentage of drug-overdose deaths in 2014, and it's losing population faster than any state in the country. John Deskins, director of the WVU BBER, says the state's main economic challenge is human capital: a healthy, skilled workforce.
The major barrier to a skilled workforce, of course, is lack of education. Coal provided high-paying jobs for those with relatively little education, and now that workforce is often ill-prepared for other markets, but they're not alone. Only 19% of the population of West Virginia and an average of 12% of the population of eastern Kentucky have bachelor degrees or higher. (Projections suggest that, in West Virginia alone, 52% of jobs will require post-secondary degrees by 2020.)
Here, there is progress: WVU and the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission are working to improve graduation rates with student-centered programs that target rural counties with low college attendance, offer on-campus support, and support entrepreneurialism, and last year the state had a record number of two- and four-year graduates. Almost every economic-development initiative we saw in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky came back, somehow, to education, even if just a workshop, training program, or retraining program. (Many involved financial assistance.) Progress in education can be slow to pay off, especially considering the length of a bachelor's degree, but it must be prioritized, says Chris Bollinger, director of the University of Kentucky Center of Business and Economic Research. Otherwise, history stands to repeat itself yet again: "A generation from now, we're going to be in the same place," he said. "You can go back to Night Comes to the Cumberlands"—Harry Caudill’s seminal 1963 book on the region’s troubled and depressed history—"and it could have been written yesterday."
In Kentucky, a bipartisan initiative called SOAR (Shaping our Appalachian Region) united longtime Republican Congressman Hal Rogers and Republican Governor Matt Bevin in an "honest dialogue" about a future beyond eastern Kentucky's struggling coal economy, with events and seminars that work toward job creation and innovation in what it calls a "landscape-changing enterprise." It’s not an understatement: By dint of its existence, SOAR has given state actors like the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED) a new freedom. When we sat down at the 40-year-old advocacy group's office in Berea, Kentucky, its director, Peter Hille, pointed to a row of books on a shelf behind him, which contained a 1986 MACED coal study that, among other things, challenged the longevity of coal and its economic impact on the state. "There's stuff in there that was not popular to say," he says. "But now you've got Rogers, the Republican chair of the appropriations committee, saying essentially, 'Coal's not coming back and we need to do something different.'"
That this kind of dialogue is lacking in West Virginia leaves people like James Van Nostrand, director of the WVU College of Law's Center for Energy and Sustainable Development, still feeling hamstrung in his ability to act on what he considers economics-driven issues, not political ones. "It makes it harder to have those conversations about where we need to go when some are saying, 'We don't need to go anywhere, we just need to get the EPA off our back,'" Van Nostrand said. "It's a complete copout in terms of the leadership we need to start addressing these issues."
Perhaps some solace is that many people we met, from former coal miners to independent artists, weren't waiting—they were addressing their issues themselves, as best they could. In Beckley, West Virginia, a former miner opens an auto shop. In Charleston, a man starts a hotdog stand as part of a downtown revitalization. In Berea, Kentucky, an artist sells her friends' work in her art and coffee house. Nearby, a laid-off miner is trained for a new job: to retrofit houses to be more energy efficient. It isn't that simple, of course—as Hille put it, we also need an industrial-sized solution, because we have an industrial-sized problem—but Deskins and Bollinger agree: that these small independent actors are a big part of a diverse economy's success. When citizens are given the resources they need to open a business or retrain for a new job, Bollinger says, "People making decisions about the economic conditions around them generally make good decisions."
In driving through West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, we found five places being shaped by these kinds of decisions—and the new economies that can spring up around them. They do not represent a comprehensive overview of the many efforts like them, nor are they the only way forward. If there is one common thread of the many conversations we had in the region, it's that there can never be just one way again.
In Berea, Hille spoke about a project he did years ago, visiting rural communities around the country with the Kellogg Foundation. Everywhere he went, someone would tell him what made their hometown different. This is what's happening here, they would say: Their economy wasn't working anymore, their children were leaving, their businesses were boarding up, their schools were closing, and they didn't know what to do. They might have been talking about cotton in the South, timber in the Pacific Northwest, or sugar cane in Hawaii. When you looked past the details, it was the same story everywhere. Now, though, there might be a happier ending.
Next Stop: Morgantown, West Virginia: Can West Virginia University Jump-Start A New Economy Based On Innovation—Not Coal?
Courtney Balestier is a James Beard-nominated writer whose work has appeared in the New Yorker online, the New York Times, the Oxford American, and elsewhere. She writes often about Appalachia.
Elaine McMillion Sheldon is a Peabody award-winning documentary filmmaker and visual journalist. She's currently in production on a feature-length documentary about the lives of several young men escaping the opioid epidemic in Appalachia.