There are certain demographic and economic trends that have been evident for decades in this region of Appalachia that can be addressed given the opportunities presented by the investment of federal funds now available. Included in these issues are:
* The continuing and inexorable trend of population decline and aging (due to the departure of many young people from the region)
*Compared to the United States, the region’s high poverty rate, high unemployment and low wages
* Corporations are headquartered elsewhere, draining wealth from the region
* Coal companies that have left their mark
* The region’s high opioid abuse and addiction issues
* Limited broadband access in rural areas of the county.
The people of the Mid-Ohio Valley have accepted in faith that the oil and gas industry contributes to the health of the region’s economy. For many years, there was an unfulfilled promise that fossil fuels, especially shale gas, would improve the region’s economy and create jobs. Hydraulic fracturing of natural gas has established well pads, pipelines, processing facilities and other infrastructure. According to a study by the Ohio River Valley Institute (2021), the shale gas region includes approximately 22 counties in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia; these counties produce about 90% of the region’s gas, but the region lags the nation on key measures of economic prosperity. For example, jobs increased by only 1.6% in the region compared to 8% nationally; the region has lost about 37,000 people, while the US population has increased by 18% over the past decade. A small portion of oil and gas profits entered the local economy; trained workers and service providers usually come from outside the region. Royalties for local families holding mining rights have declined with the decline in natural gas prices. The oil and gas industry is capital-intensive, not labor-intensive, and local natural resource revenues do not flow back into Ohio’s Central Valley. Oil and gas companies should at least contribute to the local economy through severance taxes, impact fees, and other revenue-generating opportunities that will stay here, for the benefit of our region.
The fossil fuel industry has benefited from a myriad of federal subsidies, giving it an unfair advantage in the energy market. Evangelical climatologist Dr Katherine Hayhoe in her recent book, “To save us” wrote that these subsidies amount to $600 billion a year and include tax breaks, direct production subsidies, and leases on public lands well below market rates. It’s time for the federal government to support renewable energy, which is safer, better for the environment, and more conducive to sustainable job growth and economic development than fossil fuels.
Many individuals and organizations have seen the writing on the wall and are divesting themselves of their interests in fossil fuels. Dr. Hayhoe cited these facts related to divestment: More than 1,300 organizations and 60,000 individuals representing approximately $14 trillion in assets have made the decision to divest from fossil fuels. These organizations include pension funds and insurance companies, which are reluctant to support an industry that is the direct cause of global warming and extreme weather conditions that cause billions of damages and losses. Banks and investment companies are joining this movement; Goldman Sachs recently announced that it will no longer invest in oil exploration in the Arctic.
An alternative to continued reliance on the oil and gas industry for economic development is to reinvent this region and pursue the growth opportunities of the 21st century. A UMass-Amherst study reported that good jobs in renewable energy could employ 250,000 people in the region in the next 10 years! These opportunities are numerous and include the following:
* Repair damage caused by extractive industries, e.g. plugging orphan oil and gas wells, repairing leaks, repairing dams and intakes
* Modernization of the electrical network
* Develop new local manufacturing of solar panel and wind turbine parts
* Expand manufacturing with energy-efficient facilities, such as repurposing coal-fired power plants
* Build sustainable transport, for example, railways and electric vehicle infrastructure
* Re-establish the Civilian Conservation Corps (first established by FDR in the 1930s) for projects that may include carbon farming and the expansion of forests and wetlands, which in turn could create opportunities for employment for recovering opioid addicts.
The U.S. bailout and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal (Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act), both of which were passed by Congress, can provide resources for this reimagining of Appalachia, if called upon by local officials. The Build Back Better plan, if eventually adopted in a different form from its current version or in separate packages, can provide even more resources for this purpose.
There are 21,000 fewer jobs in the fossil fuel industry, half of which need training and re-employment. These are challenges that can be addressed by educational institutions and employee training programs in the region.
George Banziger, Ph.D., was a faculty member at Marietta College and dean of studies at three other colleges. Now retired, he volunteers with the Mid-Ohio Valley Interfaith and Harvest of Hope. He is a member of the Green Sanctuary Committee of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Marietta, the Citizens Climate Lobby, and the Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action team.