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COMMENTARY | The Ohio River Valley region of Appalachia has long been a political stumbling block in the national climate debate. But with the right resources, it can become a global leader of the new energy economy and a more sustainable future.
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a five-part series of articles from ReImagine Appalachia, a coalition working to transform and strengthen the economy across parts of Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. At Route Fifty, we’ve reported previously on this project in our news coverage. Here, we’re giving the advocates behind the effort an opportunity to describe their approach, for themselves, in greater detail.
We believe their plans represents a unique and ambitious regional development push, one that can spark further discussion about how to revive the fortunes of not just the Ohio River Valley, but other parts of the U.S. trying to overcome past industrial declines, while attempting to seize on future economic opportunities.
A notable aspect of the initiative is how it is built on partnerships that span across states, the public and private sector and different levels of government. It also centers on addressing some of the most pressing challenges the nation faces with bolstering its workforce, strengthening domestic manufacturing and supply chains and contending with climate change. We hope you enjoy the series and find it informative.
For more than a century, Appalachian coal and steel helped build and fuel the nation’s prosperity while absentee corporations extracted profits and exploited our resources, leaving the region itself in poverty, lands damaged and our workers and neighbors sick.
Like other left behind communities, the Ohio River Valley is in need of a new development strategy. This is why local government officials, union and faith leaders, racial and environmental justice advocates and others across Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky came together to craft a more sustainable, equitable economic vision for the region and a blueprint for how to get there. In an era of incredibly divisive politics, this coalition is finding common ground and humanity as we work together to Reimagine Appalachia and create a Marshall Plan for Middle America.
For Appalachia to succeed in the 21st century, it will need to modernize its electrical grid, expand universal high-quality broadband, grow clean and efficient manufacturing, build a more sustainable transportation system and repair damaged lands by reforesting the region, restoring wetlands and promoting regenerative agricultural practices. Achieving these ends will create hundreds of thousands of good jobs while laying the foundation for a more prosperous economy over the long haul—an economy that is also more resilient to our changing climate.
But the region cannot pick itself up by its bootstraps. We require federal resources to successfully achieve our vision. Some resources are coming to the region through the bipartisan infrastructure law that President Biden signed last year. Getting it passed was a major victory and a downpayment on our climate infrastructure needs.
We are now working to maximize the benefits from these federal infrastructure investments. The Biden Administration, through its creation of an interagency working group on coal communities and regional investments, has clearly shown it understands the need for a sustainable development strategy in coal country.
Jobs in the new energy economy must be equivalent to those found in the extractive industries while offering on-ramps for people historically left out of the conventional energy sector. That means creating good union jobs and pathways into those jobs for women, indigenous and people of color. That’s why we encouraged the Biden Administration to issue federal policy guidance requiring community and labor standards as a condition of securing federal resources.
The Biden Administration is incorporating those standards into their funding formula, while also working to replace the use of lowest-bidder policies with “best-value” contracting principles for how they award federal competitive grant funds. The old adage that “you get what you pay for” most certainly applies to publicly funded infrastructure projects. In essence, recipients of and applicants for federal funds will now be required to seek the biggest community bang for their federal buck by using responsible contractors that build quality buildings and pay living wages, rather than shoddy contractors who cut corners and exploit their workers. They will also need to adopt targeted hiring programs for people from disadvantaged communities.
To better position our region to capture these federal infrastructure funds, we are building a powerful consortium of communities and stakeholders advancing a common vision. Our collaboration expands across communities and states in an attempt to grow collective purchasing power. If successful, our collective leverage can help drive down equipment costs, increase wages, create on-the-job training opportunities for apprentices and pre-apprentices from under-resourced and often excluded communities and promote the development of sustainable products made in Appalachia whenever possible.
But more federal resources are needed. An absence of a federal industrial plan in the wake of global outsourcing left too many of our communities behind from the collapse of the steel industry. To help avoid repeating these past mistakes, we still need an aggressive federal climate infrastructure package. Congress must act.
Our nation’s infrastructure desperately needs an upgrade. Our energy and transportation systems were built in the era of abundant, cheap fossil fuel with little concern for waste of those resources or pollution to the air we breathe, water we drink, land we live off and climate we depend on. Now, power outages and rolling blackouts along our antiquated electrical grid are becoming more common as the number of severe storms and hotter days increases. Rising and volatile gas prices remind us yet again just how dependent our transportation system is on fossil fuels imported from elsewhere. Shuttered coal plants, former steel facilities and abandoned coal mines have become brownfields that blight our communities, gut our tax base and force people into low-paying jobs.
Bringing our region and our nation into the 21st century requires transformational change. We can’t keep doing things the same way while expecting different results. We must start doing development differently—at the state, local and federal levels. The campaign to ReImagine Appalachia is our region’s attempt to do our part.
Amanda Woodrum is senior researcher for Policy Matters Ohio and co-director of the Campaign to ReImagine Appalachia.
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