It’s no secret the coal economy is changing, and as it declines, so do the livelihoods of people and families who’ve worked in the industry for generations. Now, coal states across the country are working together on a community driven, economic transition for the people and places where coal was once king.
They’re calling it the National Economic Transition or NET and it aims to build a completely new economy in coal country from the bottom up, giving local leaders and citizens a say in how their communities evolve.
“We need this process to be coordinated at the federal level because it's a national problem.”
Adam Wells is with the group Appalachian Voices. He says this is more than just a marketing strategy. It’s about reinventing an economy that has dominated this country’s coal states as a way of life and an energy provider to the nation, and not something that is easy to replace.
“There's this concept that coal mines are closing, or coal plants are closing, and we'll just train those people to be solar installers or internet coders.” Wells says he thinks maybe, some people will be able to make that transition, “There's a few really good examples of where that's worked, but by and large, that is the exception and not the rule.”
The ongoing transition from a coal economy has such far-reaching effects that supporters are asking for a new federal Office of Economic Transition, guided by an advisory board that's reflective of the coal communities and stakeholders.
Local labor and tribal leaders from Appalachia to the Navajo Nation are asking the U.S. government to support the effort they’re calling, the “National Economic Transition,” or NET.
Tony Skrelunas is Team Leader, TribeAwaken.com who represents tribal communities.
“A lot of us, we have power plants, coal mines and a lot of power infrastructure running across our land, and a lot of our communities have grown up with it.
Skrelunas says people should not have to leave their lands to find jobs as employment in the coal industry declines: the new economy must come to them. The same goes for Virginia’s coal country, says Adam Wells of “Appalachian Voices.” They’re not looking to spur only solar related jobs, but all kinds of new sectors, including a return to advanced manufacturing.
“I think there is going to be a push to onshore a lot of the higher end manufacturing jobs. Those types of good, what used to be union jobs, have been leaving this country for decades and when a coal mine closes, that’s just one more instance where that has happened, a global economic trend.”
Most coal industry are jobs are extremely high tech, with many workers earning salaries upwards of a $100,000 a year. And many coal workers support large, extended families on those wages.