When the president unveiled his proposal last week, he spoke about a key philosophy guiding his plan: a mission to “bring everybody along.” His bill centers on a framework known as “Just Transition” — which aims to create greater opportunity for marginalized Americans while building a greener, more sustainable economy. Perhaps no state in our country better embodies the potential of this approach than West Virginia.
The Mountain State’s recent economic struggles are well documented. The state has lost more than 40 percent of its manufacturing jobs since 1994. Roughly 14,000 residents have lost jobs in industries such as coal mining and gas extraction in the past 10 years alone. And the livelihoods of an additional 40,000 West Virginians currently employed in fossil fuel-based sectors may be at risk as our economy transitions to more renewable sources.
A recent study by the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst demonstrates just how large the benefits of the Just Transition could be. PERI’s report concludes that West Virginia can create more than 41,000 new jobs by investing in a clean infrastructure plan known as the Reimagine Appalachia blueprint. Like the Biden bill, this blueprint calls for better efficiency standards in buildings, public transit systems and the like. These steps would significantly reduce energy consumption in the state — which is currently twice the U.S. average. The blueprint would also repurpose shuttered coal sites into energy-efficient manufacturing plants, along with repairing leaking pipelines and plugging orphaned gas wells. And it would increase the supply of energy produced by renewable sources such as solar, geothermal and wind.
Critically, the Reimagine Appalachia blueprint sets forth a series of policies to support West Virginians once employed in fossil fuel-based industries as they transition to a more sustainable economy. For example, it would enact re-employment programs to guarantee that workers earn the same wages in the renewable sector, or elsewhere, that they earned in their previous positions. And it proposes cutting-edge retraining programs to help workers learn the skills needed to secure high-quality, well-paying jobs as the state’s green economy expands. All told, the cost of these supports for transitioning workers would amount to $143 million per year — just 0.2 percent of the state’s gross domestic product.
The overall blueprint the PERI study fleshes out is the brainchild of the Reimagine Appalachia coalition — a diverse array of environmental, labor and agricultural leaders from across the Ohio Valley. For more than a decade, its members have advocated on behalf of underserved communities to create a local economy where good jobs in clean energy and manufacturing are abundant. Now, they’ve positioned West Virginia and the surrounding region to serve as ground zero for America’s transition to a new, green economy.
The investments in Biden’s infrastructure proposal would provide vital funding to help translate the Reimagine Appalachia blueprint into concrete action. For instance, it contains $100 billion to retrain displaced workers and create millions of high-paying, unionized jobs in green energy. And it pledges 40 percent of its funding for climate and clean infrastructure toward disadvantaged communities such as those in West Virginia.
The Reimagine Appalachia coalition captured the urgency of this moment in throwing its support behind the president’s proposal: “Now is the time to put our ingenuity to use and imagine a 21st century economy that works for the people in the Ohio River Valley of Appalachia. Our kids and grandkids will thank us for it.” Lawmakers from the Mountain State — including powerful Sen. Joe Manchin III (D) — would be wise to embrace the opportunities of the Just Transition. They should recognize the president’s plan presents the only path forward for our nation — and champion its passage. The bill strikes a critical balance between providing much-needed support for those left behind by our modern economy, while simultaneously forging a more sustainable future. It offers proof that we can, in Biden’s words, bring everybody along in the effort to preserve our planet.