By Emily Satterwhite
A fossil fuel executive recently told Fortune, “Appalachia is the elephant in the room,” referring to the claim that demand for natural gas is rising, while supply in Appalachia and the United States is falling. Such corporate executives would like to see expansion of production in order to bail out their dying industry.
And Fortune’s interviewee is right. Appalachia is the elephant in the room. We need to talk more about the role of Appalachia in the country’s energy system. But what he gets wrong is that the future does not entail further dependence on fossil fuels. The future that Appalachia can and will lead is in renewable energy.
For over a century, this region has powered the country’s growth with our natural resources, including coal, gas, and oil. However, our communities have not seen the prosperity and health the fossil fuel industry continues to promise. Instead, we are suffering the impacts of pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and a boom-and-bust industry. It’s time to stop waiting for these corporations to fulfill their promises because, frankly, fossil fuels will never help the people of Appalachia. The only thing we can count on the industry to do is pollute, profit, and extract.
Fossil fuel executives and their allies are using the devastating war in Ukraine to promote their industry in order to stuff their pockets with our hard-earned money, and the federal government has chosen to take their side. The liquified natural gas (LNG) industry is “unleashing” buildout to rake in global profits, leaving everyday Americans to pick up the increasing tab. I find myself asking: Is the federal government the people’s government, as they say they are? Or are they working for fossil fuel executives?
The people know that we must shift course to a renewable future that will bring our communities the jobs, health, prosperity, and safety we deserve. There are four reasons to do so: economic stability, cost savings, reliable jobs, and community health.
The oil and gas industry is notoriously volatile. Prices rise abruptly, hurting consumers while executives continue to make a hefty profit. Renewable energy on the other hand, has proven to be much more stable in terms of price. At the end of April, renewables met nearly 100 percent of California’s demand for the first time, followed by 103 percent the following week.
Some have argued that blackouts in California and the massive grid failure during a cold snap in Texas were due to the undependability of renewable energy. However, these myths have been debunked; an extreme heat wave, faulty planning, and lack of flexible generation sources resulted in the California blackouts and inadequately weatherized power plants and poor planning resulted in the Texas grid failure. It is undoubtedly possible to have a reliable electricity system using renewable energy sources coupled with energy management and storage.
Additionally, costs for renewables have been declining for decades. Although new costs for solar and wind installations have recently increased due to supply chain issues, costs for fracked gas, oil, and coal have risen much faster, thus improving renewables’ competitiveness.
While jobs in the coal industry decline, jobs in the renewable energy sector boom. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists wind and solar energy jobs as within the top five fastest-growing occupations. The youthful and growing climate movement has a big role to play in not only advocating for the potential of well-paying jobs in the sector, but also for centering the working class. The fossil fuel economy has long prioritized profits over communities but there is no place for such extraction in a just and equitable transition.
The fossil fuel industry has polluted, devastated, and sickened our land, water, and communities for too long. In fact, it’s trying to further this legacy by accelerating projects like the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which threatens to harm Virginia and West Virginia with no returns for the communities. And this is all taking place during a climate emergency that imperils all of humanity. For the health and future of our people, we cannot waste resources on new fossil fuel infrastructure. Instead, we need to invest in a just transition to living wage jobs in the renewable energy sector.
The fossil fuel executive who spoke to Fortune was advocating for Appalachia to be an energy leader. I have the same hope. The “Coal Baron Blockade,” organized by West Virginia Rising, targeted Senator Joe Manchin for personally profiting from coal while the planet burns. Groups invested in the future of Appalachia, including West Virginia Council of Churches, West Virginia Rivers Coalition, and Coal River Mountain Watch, recently called on Congress to protect Black Lung Disability funding, and support solar and a climate-centered Civilian Conservation Corps. Our region sacrificed the people and places dearest to us when we thought it was in our nation’s best interest. Now, better than anyone, we know that we must set aside the industry’s lies and the federal government’s foot-dragging to demand a livable, green future. No more sacrifice zones, no more throw away people. We take care of people; it’s what we do. Our fiercely beloved Appalachia is ready to lead the way to a new energy era.
Emily Satterwhite, PhD, is an associate professor and director of Appalachian Studies in the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech. She is a volunteer with the POWHR Coalition (Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights) and Mountain Valley Watch.