Eco-encyclical poses focal questions for future of coal regions

Fog covers a part of the Appalachia mountains as seen in 2014 from Kayford Mount south of Charleston, W.Va. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
This article appears in the Laudato Si' in Coal Country feature series. View the full series.

While initiatives at the parish level, be them efficiency assessments or green committees, represent important components of advancing Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical, “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” they make up only a piece of the conversation. Eventually, talk has to turn to involve the local and national legislature, particularly in states heavily reliant on fossil fuels.

“What happens here does depend on leaders,” said Bishop Michael Bransfield of Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va., whose diocese encompasses the totality of the nation’s no. 2 coal state.

West Virginia has seen coal production slip 28 percent since 2008 and 40 percent in its southern region, where reliance makes any economic downturn more volatile. Mining jobs in the state today are less than 20,000, with more than 5,000 lost down south since 2011.

“This is a defining moment in West Virginia and its history. There’s no question,” Bransfield said. “So will we just wait for the future and see what’s going to happen? Or are we part of the solution, that as you said, we talk to higher people or people who can affect this situation now?”

Addressing coal -- and poverty

The situation, as Bransfield sees it, begins with addressing poverty. West Virginia’s 18.3 percent poverty rate is tied for seventh highest in the nation. (Kentucky, at 19.1 percent, ranked fifth.) Among children in West Virginia, the poverty rate rises to 24.3 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Addressing this poverty comes in providing immediate help in accessing adequate health care -- already aided by the Affordable Care Act, the bishop said -- or assistance to people struggling in food deserts (areas lacking close access to stores with fresh fruits and vegetables). Much of southern West Virginia has either limited vehicle access or stores 20 or more miles away.

More: “UN report: As climate warms, poverty will grow” (Nov. 4, 2014)

Bransfield assures that the Charleston statehouse knows his and the diocese’s positions on poverty as well as the glaring need to look beyond coal. On the latter, the diocese also knows it’s a rough road. Beyond state opposition to the Clean Power Plan, the 2014 midterm elections saw Republicans ride a pro-coal platform to take hold of both chambers of the state Legislature for the first time since the Great Depression.

Asked if the diocese has considered endorsing the Clean Power Plan, as the U.S. bishops’ conference has, Jesuit Fr. Brian O’Donnell, executive secretary for the Catholic Conference of West Virginia, conceded the present “minefield” of state politics, particularly as it relates to President Barack Obama, and that the state has lagged as much as a generation behind others bordering it when it comes to renewable energy and sustainability.

More: “EPA unveils Clean Power Plan, as faith groups quick to embrace” (Aug. 4, 2015)

A more likely avenue for such action, he said, would come through the collective voice of the West Virginia Council of Churches, of which the Wheeling-Charleston diocese is a member. In its outline of public policy priorities for 2015, the council denounced mountaintop removal while calling energy efficiency programs “a sensible investment for West Virginia,” and encouraging state leaders “to embrace the economic opportunity and job creation offered” from clean, renewable energy. It urged the Legislature to revise the state’s clean energy portfolio standard to emphasize renewables rather than “alternatives,” and to create an energy enhancement fund to expand renewable energy and energy efficiency capacity.

At the federal level, the council asked Congress not only to mitigate climate change but the impact of related legislation on Appalachia’s people.

Bransfield said he agrees with the pope of the need to move off fossil fuels, but feels responsible to assure that in doing so, the miners aren’t left buried beside the mineral.

“We all know what’s wrong. Nobody wants mountaintop removal. Nobody wants to just have fossil fuels in the future. But somebody wants to help poor people who are unemployed. Somebody wants to help poor children, especially when you have these proportions of them, when you’re not sure if they have food,” he said.

Outside solutions for coal country

A partial solution may lie in a piece of the president’s proposed fiscal year 2016 budget, the POWER+ Plan. Formally known as the Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization Initiative, the plan has begun using $28 million-$38 million in federal funds to award planning and implementation grants to communities negatively impacted by changes in the coal industry and power sector. That includes diversifying those regions’ economies, creating and attracting new jobs, and providing training and educational opportunities.

The 2016 budget has an additional $55 million earmarked for the program, overseen by the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

The POWER+ Plan also seeks to strengthen retired miners’ health care and pension plans, in addition to providing $1 billion over five years to redevelop abandoned coal mine sites, and $2 billion in tax incentives to encourage use of carbon capture and sequestration technology.

The proposed Power+ Plan.jpg
(NCR graphic made with Canva; photo CNS, information from

A similar West Virginia program, the Southern Coalfields Organizing and Revitalizing the Economy (SCORE) initiative, seeks to emphasize the state’s south tourism, education and retraining, redevelopment (particularly agribusiness and in rural areas), and extending Internet access.

Beyond support for national limits on carbon emissions, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has supported legislation in Congress, such as the Nonprofit Energy Efficiency Act, that would make grants available to nonprofits, including Catholic parishes, schools and hospitals, aimed at making energy efficiency improvements.

Cecilia Calvo, head of the U.S. bishops’ Environmental Justice Program, said that while the conference is looking at programs providing assistance to coal workers, through its Catholic Campaign for Human Development it has supported groups that retrain workers for green jobs.

Numerous studies have examined state-by-state clean energy potential, offering optimism for the Mountain West but a mixed bag for much of Appalachia.

Across most of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, 2.3 acres of solar panel surface area could power 1,000 homes, according to the Department of Energy, with incremental improvement in Montana and Wyoming. Montana ranks third in wind energy potential, according to the American Wind Energy Association, and has vast reserves of geothermal energy, as does portions of West Virginia.

The Solutions Project, an effort backed by Tesla CEO Elon Musk and actor/climate advocate Leonardo DiCaprio, uses data from Stanford University to map a road to 100-percent-renewable energy for all 50 states by 2050. In West Virginia and Kentucky, it’s largely through solar photovoltaic plants, to the effect of 73,000 long-term jobs and $1.9 billion in annual health cost savings in West Virginia, and 189,000 jobs and $7.1 billion in annual health savings in Kentucky.

For Wyoming, the model utilizes a majority of wind power as well as solar, with far less in created jobs or avoided health costs, but estimates as much as $77,000 in annual energy/health/climate cost savings per person by 2050.

Beyond energy generation, others have spotted job potential in manufacturing components for the growing renewables sector -- particularly the booming solar industry, which in 2014 employed 32,490 manufacturing workers, an increase of 30 percent since 2010. In the same time frame, solar installation, the bulk of the sector’s workforce, has grown nearly 121 percent, with a projected 2015 employment of almost 119,000.

Paving a new path

Outside enthusiasm for new possibilities aside, it’s evident a successful transition away from coal won’t occur without local buy-in. That point was illustrated in an August Washington Post report about a proposed wind farm for southwestern Virginia, what would be the state’s first such project, that quickly ran into opposition from the region.

“We’re losing our foothold in the coal industry and now they’re proposing … ‘Oh, by the way, we’re going to take your beautiful land for renewable energy?’ It is insulting, really,” Charles Stacy, an attorney who lives near the planned development, told the Post, before adding that people didn’t seem to have a problem with coal when it fueled the rise of America’s cities.

Franciscan Sr. Robbie Pentecost, who has ministered in Appalachia for 20 years, has detected that a lot of the doubt about the potential of wind or solar is fed by the coal companies, which gained trust as the historical providers of the best-paying jobs. Until coal ceases as an economically viable option, she senses discussions on alternatives can’t begin.

An alternative proposed by opponents like Stacy was tourism, whether for Appalachia’s natural beauty, history or burgeoning system of ATV trails. The Jesuit priest O’Donnell has heard the same ideas floated in West Virginia, though he is uncertain it could completely replace coal. In his mind, he’s played with the idea of cooperative ventures -- something Francis lauded in Laudato Si’ -- where the members share in the ownership and profits.

 “Once people unhook themselves from the old ways of doing things and would be open to entertaining new ideas, I think that sort of idea just might pay off in a number of cases,” O’Donnell said.

Conversations at the grassroots about what the future holds have begun at multiple levels in West Virginia. In September in Mingo County, the federal Appalachian Regional Commission held a listening session to foster wide-ranging conversations among the coalfield people about the future of their communities.

“So much of the encyclical is really a challenge for such discussions to begin,” O’Donnell said.

To the same effect, the West Virginia Council of Churches has partnered with the grassroots program “What’s Next, West Virginia?”, which has held community forums statewide throughout the year. The nonpartisan coalition places front and center the statistical realities facing the state in an effort to stimulate and link ideas of how to strengthen local economies, toward eventually turning innovative thoughts into actions.

In Huntington, to the southwest, attendees at a community meeting talked about sharing hope, the connections between jobs, education and civics, and addressing a “self-esteem issue,” in recognizing the resources already at hand.

In Clay County, home of the Golden Delicious apple, they took the issues that grew from their community forum to the state capitol to inform legislators of their visions -- replace dilapidated housing, recruit and retain a drug-free workforce, begin local businesses -- and what help they need to make it a reality.

A “What’s Next, West Virginia?” discussion video answers the question of its name, by simply saying, “It’s up to us.”

‘Flashes of life’

Every so often, O’Donnell notices “flashes of life” flicker in the state’s south: “You get these little spurts of indication of, yeah, as a matter of fact, new thoughts can exist down in the coalfields.”

The same is true in eastern Kentucky. During the coalfield tour, Lexington, Ky., Bishop John Stowe toured Bit Source, a software and web development startup in Pikeville. At the heart of the nascent company’s workforce are 10 former miners, all of them retrained for a new chapter in careers longed defined by coal.

“It really is a Cinderella story,” said Glenmary Home Missioner Fr. John Rausch said, who organized the bishop’s tour. A minister to Appalachia of 40 years, the priest lauded coal miners as some of the hardest workers in any industry; the next step is emphasizing ongoing education, a void in the past for the region, given the stranglehold of mining.

Perhaps the education in some parts may extend to Francis’ encyclical, a challenging proposition no doubt in fuel-rich states.

“Usually when somebody says something that’s prophetic, it’s uncomfortable,” said Bishop Michael Warfel of Great Falls-Billings, Mont. “And I see that in this line [about coal], as a prophetic statement.”

Maybe more than in other parts of the U.S., amid the real adventure of West Virginia, the real beauty of Kentucky and the real vastness of Montana and Wyoming, the pope’s encyclical itself becomes real: a real trial. One that requests not simply altering behavior or adjusting voting priorities, but unearthing a deeply entrenched way of life.

“It’s sort of like when anything’s going to die, you hold on,” Pentecost said. “And it’s when you can let go that you can really be part of a new beginning or a new opportunity.”

Said O’Donnell: “That basic conversation the pope asks for -- about our stance toward creation, what are we doing in our own life that, on reflection, may not evidence a real care for creation, a real care for those who are poor among us -- that conversation is very much needed in West Virginia.

“But I think it’s beginning.” 

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

Editor's Note: This is Part Four of a four-part series on the papal encyclical in coal country. Part One is available here. Part Two is available here. Part Three is available here.

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