green hills with windturbines on the horizen

A roadmap to a green, healthy, equitable economy in Appalachia and beyond

April 14, 2022

By Mark Funkhouser 

As someone who grew up in a working-class family of steelworkers in West Virginia, my roots are in Appalachia. Coal mines were the backdrop of everyday life. But this cornerstone of the mountain economy has always presented challenges.

Over two centuries, the very industries that provided economic lifeblood for these hardworking communities have permanently scarred this beautiful landscape. Strip mines, mountaintop removal, and fracking continue to take their toll. Meanwhile, the toxins in coal ash have had a devastating impact on the health of the region’s people and its natural environment.

The push for net-zero carbon in the U.S. is happening alongside historic investments in infrastructure that prioritize social equity and community engagement. This emphasis on equity can directly benefit communities in Appalachia, which are some of the poorest in the country, and many others that also have significant economic disparities.

But good policy intentions alone aren’t enough. As we reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and transition to clean energy, we need to understand and prepare for how it will impact — and how it can benefit — all Americans. Our roadmap for a resilient future must be based on new thinking and collaborative approaches. Two innovative initiatives seek to do precisely that, relying on regional cooperation with various stakeholders to support a green-economy transition and a better future for Appalachia.

The first of these initiatives, the Marshall Plan for Middle America (MP4MA), aims to build a regional, cross-sector coalition to drive investment in infrastructure and energy diversification and create an equitable economic recovery. The plan lays the foundation for the Ohio Valley, which includes Upper Appalachia, to become a global leader in cleaner energy production and the restorative, regenerative approach known as circular economics. The plan was crafted by the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Sustainable Business in collaboration with the city of Pittsburgh, the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network USA, the Steel Valley Authority, the Heartland Capital Strategies Network, and the Enel Foundation.

The idea is that private investments can retool regional economies, create new hubs for green industry, and revive the region’s economic competitiveness, said former Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, one of the plan’s visionaries. A team in Piketon, Ohio, for example, wants to turn a former uranium enrichment facility into a clean energy production and manufacturing hub for hydrogen and materials industries.

By replicating approaches such as this one, which combines new technology with traditional industries, the plan hopes to create upwards of 400,000 new jobs in the region and eliminate carbon emissions by 2050. “If we do nothing, the four-state region of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky will lose 100,000 jobs in the next decade,” Peduto said during a recent webinar sponsored by Route Fifty.

The MP4MA also has a unique collaborative approach to raising capital by uniting private investors with developers, contractors, and unions. Armed with private capital support, city leaders across northern Appalachia and the Ohio Valley can come together as a united, bipartisan force to appeal for federal investments.

“We have the systems in place. We have the utilities in place. We have the people in place. We have the organizations to train the people. What we are missing is the plan. This is why the Marshall Plan was created,” Peduto said. MP4MA comes in stark contrast to the Green New Deal, which polarized workers and environmentalists in Appalachia and saw the region as an afterthought, Peduto explained.

The second innovative initiative is called Reimagine Appalachia, which takes a grassroots, public-sector approach to rebuilding the region. Over the past two years, the organization has built a coalition of economic, environmental, and community leaders and groups to create an economic blueprint to benefit the region’s workers, communities, and environment. More than 130 elected local-government leaders have signed on to the initiative.

Like MP4MA, Reimagine’s blueprint prioritizes labor unions and retaining jobs locally while creating a sustainable economy through a climate infrastructure plan. As more coal plants are shuttered, environmental remediation challenges will emerge, but they will also bring new opportunities for industry transformation supporting new technologies.

The federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) has the potential to further both of these initiatives as it prioritizes regional projects, public-private partnerships, and community-driven coalitions. Cities will be procuring billions of dollars for clean-energy and infrastructure projects, but they need to be regionally sustainable. That means new development near urban centers as well as in rural areas to ensure that prosperity is allocated equitably throughout Appalachia.

Pittsburgh City Council member Erika Strassburger, the council’s point person on implementing the IIJA, believes great synergy exists between the MP4MA and Reimagine. The strength of MP4MA’s research, data, and plan is more detailed and focused but lacks Reimagine’s local coalitions, so coordination between the two groups will be essential. Reimagine offers the framework to access public funding, while MP4MA is engaging investors to raise private capital. Strategically combining these efforts will help accelerate transformative economic diversification in the region.

MP4MA and Reimagine Appalachia give me hope not only because they’re innovative and collaborative but because they have the potential to revive centuries of history and build on a culture of hard work. I also see them as blueprints that can be replicated across the country.

I also have a native son’s vested interest in Appalachia and its resilient people. I want these communities to live and thrive economically in a beautiful, clean environment, a place people like me wouldn’t feel the need to leave in search of opportunities. As Tom Croft, the Steel Valley Authority’s executive director, recently put it: “If we want our kids to stop leaving our towns, we need to make a place for them to live and thrive.”

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