Together, we can choose a different future for Appalachian communities | Opinion

The Pittsburgh skyline, viewed from the Duquesne Incline. (Dllu/WikiMedia Commons)

By Joanne Kilgour

Over the course of my career, I have been humbled by what the people in the Ohio River Valley have given to me.

I recall those community members who kindly served me coffee made with bottled water because their wells had been compromised by the then-new fracking industry; gifts of home-grown fruit that ripened despite the adjacent coal ash disposal area blowing a thick dust over all adjoining properties; and donuts shared with retired mine workers as we stood in the cold demanding the benefits they earned putting their bodies on the line to line the pockets of their corporate bosses.

What I know to be true about the region is that the depth of character, work ethic, and commitment to community here is unparalleled, and it is time to give back to a region that has given us all so much. For years, coal helped Appalachia power the country. Now, it’s time we look to the future by putting Appalachian communities to work again generating clean, homegrown energy.

For too long, we’ve been sold the idea that in order for our region to thrive we had to exploit, rather than invest in, our natural resources. In late 2009, the Upper Ohio River Valley went all-in on fossil fuels and fracking. But the oil and gas industry failed to deliver the sustained economic boom it promised. Poverty rates and median incomes in highly fracked regions remained essentially unchanged.

Despite a surfeit of shale gas, job losses in manufacturing continued so fast they overwhelmed the addition of extraction and construction jobs. Natural gas extraction even failed to deliver low-cost fuel for local residents: gas for home heating in Pennsylvania is actually about 10 percent more expensive than the national average.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Together, we can move beyond an extractive economy to one of shared prosperity marked by lasting job growth, clean energy, and a stronger, more equitable economy.

That’s why I’m so excited to be at the helm of the Ohio River Valley Institute (ORVI), a new think-tank helping the greater Ohio Valley region mark out a path toward shared prosperity, clean energy, and equitable civic structures.

Founded last year, we are an independent, nonprofit research and communications center that produces data-driven research and proposes policies to improve the economic performance and standards of living for the greater Ohio River Valley.

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In just the last few months, we’ve released two groundbreaking reports: the first details how dreams of jobs and prosperity in “natural gas counties” in Appalachia turned into almost nothing.

The second paired ORVI researchers with researchers at the Stockholm Environmental Institute to produce groundbreaking new analysis showing that prospective gas projects in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia face some serious financial risks for investors. Our findings begin to debunk the economic case for natural gas and petrochemical expansion in Appalachia.

Globally, oil and gas prices have been distressed and in decline for more than a decade. Bankruptcies in the industry are now increasingly common. Industry leaders like ExxonMobil, Shell, and Chevron have all steeply written down or sold off assets.

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The oil and gas industry has stayed afloat thanks to large tax subsidies. But as more and more oil and gas companies go bankrupt, local economies put themselves in a very vulnerable position by betting on oil and gas and associated industries like petrochemicals.

In the midst of an ongoing pandemic and an urgent economic crisis, federal and national leaders and policymakers would be wise to invest in an ambitious national transition program that supports the people and places hit hardest by the changing economy.

There’s a serious risk for workers and communities when elected leaders fail to acknowledge economic realities. Unplanned transition away from fossil fuels devastated coal communities across Appalachia. We could see the same thing with natural gas. Northern Appalachia should foster a more resilient economy insulated from the booms and busts of fossil fuels.

We deserve a brighter economic future than fossil fuels have delivered. Federal investments in this region to improve infrastructure and address legacy pollution from facilities like unplugged orphaned and abandoned gas wells could put people to work and circulate more resources in our local economies.

We need an ambitious national policy agenda that supports the people and places hit hardest by our changing economy.

The future of our communities depends on a more diversified, sustainable economy and strong social policies that improve quality of life for everyone.

Low-cost, reliable wind and solar power are here now. The Ohio River Valley has done it before with coal and we can do it again. I’m excited to help lead the way.

Joanne Kilgour is the executive director of the Ohio River Valley Research Institute, a nonprofit research organization that works to advance long-term solutions to some of Appalachia’s most significant challenges.