2023 in Review

Together, a more prosperous, sustainable, and equitable Appalachia is possible.

That’s the vision that has geared our data-driven research, guided our outreach and campaigns, and grounded our work in the region’s community and culture ever since the Ohio River Valley Institute’s very beginning. It’s now been more than three years since we laid out our mission to help build a better tomorrow for Appalachia, and we couldn’t be more grateful for those who have helped us grow, adapt, and serve along the way. As the curtain closes on 2023, we’re returning to the foundational theory of change we first envisioned back in August 2020 to measure just how far we’ve come—together.

> IMPACT: Partner organizations use our well-researched claims to hold industry leaders and policymakers accountable for their decisions;

Accountability is critical to Appalachia’s brighter future. For more than three years, our data has helped sieve fact from industry-sponsored fiction, elevating community experiences and concerns and supercharging advocacy work across the region.

Research and rapid response toolkits have empowered our partners with the communications tools to dispel false narratives about the economic contributions of gas and petrochemicals, tamp down hydrogen hype, and even win a fracking ban in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County. And that’s not all. From labor wins to new visions of emissionless industry, our research has helped key in victories region-wide and beyond. Green Steel in the Ohio River Valley, our report on the economic and environmental gains to be had by a concerted transition to renewable-powered, fossil fuel-free steelmaking, has helped shape conversations on industrial decarbonization and piqued interest in a region-wide green manufacturing hub. Our research on prevailing wage has helped improve labor standards with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. And forthcoming data on the petrochemicals industry in Louisiana—and the state’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program (ITEP), which was long recognized as the most generous industry subsidy in the nation before a 2016 reform that upped taxes on pollution-spewing facilities, but now faces gutting by incoming governor Jeff Landry—is helping communities along the Gulf Coast demand better from extractive industries.

Accountability has also been the fulcrum of our hydrogen campaign, launched in earnest last fall to advocate increased community protections and a pivot from false solutions. Members of our campaign have flooded pro-hub public forums with community concerns, driven decisive coalition letters to key stakeholders, and taken to the press to Increase awareness, cultivate skepticism, and build opposition to ARCH2 and its component projects.

AAnd as the curtain closes on 2023, our thoughts are with the families in Eastern Kentucky impacted by last August’s devastating flood. Recovery efforts are still underway, led by groups like Housing Development Alliance, H.O.M.E.S. Inc., FAHE, Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, and others, and we’re proud to support planning efforts with data and policy recommendations that expedite affordable housing redevelopment–in buildings built for safety and longevity, far from projected floodplains—for those who need it most. Our research alongside Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center has been used by organizations ranging from local disaster recovery groups to the Cleveland Fed, and helped yield $10 million in state funds for a Rural Housing Trust Fund and $300 million in HUD flood recovery funds.

> IMPACT: Media ceases using industry talking points as fact, and presses industry leaders and policymakers on the accuracy of their economic claims;

Our research continues to fuel a paradigm shift in Appalachia’s media landscape, encouraging fairer, more critical coverage of the once-unassailable fossil fuel industry and its model of extractive economics.

In 2023, scores of news and opinion pieces throughout the region cited our data on the gas and petrochemical industries’ failure to deliver job growth and prosperity, an acknowledgment that would have been nearly unthinkable just a few years ago. The floundering PTTG ethane cracker, heralded for nearly a decade as an economic savior despite research demonstrating the contrary, has been pronounced dead by even its staunchest proponents. And strongly-worded editorials on industry’s failures by key regional outlets, like the Martins Ferry Times-Leader, offer a testament to the timeliness and resonance of our work.

Also new this year: coverage of the Department of Energy’s regional hydrogen hub program and nascent ARCH2 projects regularly questions the viability, as well as the economic and environmental value, of large-scale regional development. Even compared to emerging coverage a year ago, which routinely reiterated industry talking points on the public benefits of hydrogen development, today’s coverage increasingly references ORVI research and community perspectives on the economic absurdity and community disenfranchisement—and endangerment—broad carbon capture buildout would entail.

At the same time, abundant coverage of our solutions-oriented research on reclaiming orphaned wells and abandoned mine lands and transitioning from dirty, coal-fueled steelmaking to innovative processes powered by renewables and green hydrogen have broadened conversations about our region’s path forward.

And we continue to develop relationships with fearless, integrity-driven members of the press, like Mike Tony of the Charleston Gazette-Mail and John Russell, as they set a bar for journalistic standards across Appalachia.

> IMPACT: Economic development authorities engage with sustainable development proposals for the region and minimize reliance on “the smokestack savior” mentality

It’s becoming increasingly clear to residents and policymakers that our economy can no longer rely on tried-and-failed “smokestack chasing” or continued gas and petrochemical development. Our research offers a better path.

The Centralia Model for Economic Development continues to reach bigger, brighter stages. This year, the Ohio State University published new research demonstrating a causal link between the Centralia Coal Transition Grant program and surrounding Lewis County’s leapfrogging wage and job growth, county commissioners in Greene County, Pennsylvania and elsewhere continued to champion the report’s findings, and the EPA and West Virginia University issued a joint invitation to apply for a Centralia-based Climate Pollution Reduction Grant. To cap it all off, Centralia’s remarkable economic turnaround was presented to international climate leaders this December at the United Nations’ COP 28 conference in Dubai.

And this year, we’ve continued to track and connect local governments and organizations to both federal and state funds to help advance their work.

> IMPACT: Lawmakers have research and data to support their community-based co-governance models and efforts to reduce industry influence in politics;

Critical to shared prosperity and fair, equitable democracy in our region is loosening the oil and gas industry’s grip on our political levers. To that end, our work continues to equip community champions in positions of influence with the research and data they need to cement real change.

Our prep work on building decarbonization in Allegheny County helped pave the way for incoming county executive Sara Innamorato to advance policies that could usher in clean energy and shared prosperity. Ongoing working groups with the building trades and the Department of the Interior have outlined criteria for good jobs and efficient cleanup regarding well plugging and mine cleanup implementation. And our hydrogen campaign, in particular, has taken proactive steps to educate pivotal legislators on the economic and environmental justice risks of unsound blue hydrogen investment. A series of direct educational presentations and testimonies before legislators, written feedback and priority guidance on bill language, community letters and petitions, and one-pagers and other research summaries have even helped secure stronger Class II injection well protections in Texas and move the needle on the 45Q carbon sequestration tax credit.

> IMPACT: Academics and other professionals have a vehicle to translate their research and other work into immediate action and uptake by members of the media, movement-building organizations, lawmakers, and other researchers;

Also crucial to the success of our vision? Academics and researchers. Our university partners and collaborators in other professions have grown significantly in number over the last three years, and our projects have spurred action across the region.

Research on orphaned well funding data in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has helped expand oil & gas inspectors and inform remediation programs. A town hall on the consequential West Virginia vs. EPA Supreme Court decision, featuring the legal expertise of Jamie Van Nostrand, Bobby McKinstry, Miranda Leppla, demystified the ramifications of the ruling for local decision-makers and members of the public. Across the board, collaboration with our academic and professional partners have push the agenda on methane mitigation (Greg Compton, University of Texas), the economic benefits of prioritizing quality-of-life in micropolitan areas (Amanda Weinstein, formerly of Akron University), the questionable business model of Diversified Energy (Tony Ingraffea, Cornell University), Centralia-style “bigger bang” approaches to economic development (Mark Partridge, Ohio State University), the reputation of the oil and gas industry (Colin Jerolmack, New York University), aid for impacted residents of East Palestin (Justin Mikulka, New Consensus) and decarbonization models for Southwestern Pennsylvania and beyond (Shanti Gamper-Rabindran, University of Pittsburgh). Our growing list of key collaborators also includes the Black Appalachian Coalition, the Keystone Research Center, Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, Earthjustice, Union of Concerned Scientists, ReImagine Appalachia, and more.

> IMPACT: ORVI staff collaborate with unions seeking real, long-term opportunities for their members and have additional support for framing pro-labor policies as sound economic development for shared prosperity.

Workers must be at the center of a shared economic vision for a better, cleaner, more prosperous future. Our work with unions and other labor partners ensures that the people building a better path for our region are protected, fairly compensated, and empowered.

And we’ve found success. Our research helped lay the policy foundation for the first union contract for abandoned mine land reclamation in Kentucky and has shaped labor standards for abandoned mine land and orphaned well remediation at the federal level and in state agencies across the region. Our partnership on labor standards for mine cleanup even won a nod from a US Department of Labor official as a great example of how BIL investments can support good union jobs. This past year, our participation in a number of events, including a Department of the Interior press conference in Pittsburgh with Secretary Deb Haaland, a White House National Economic Council event in Kentucky on the clean energy and reclamation economy, and a number of events in Ohio with building trades and union contractors, unified support for pro-labor policies on federal programs to address legacy damage from the fossil fuel industry. Legacy pollution groups with unions and labor-adjacent partners have similarly yielded strong, pro-labor guidance on orphaned well cleanup. And in Pittsburgh, ORVI researchers are helping to establish project labor agreements for the Bedford Dwellings redevelopment, an affordable housing project that will replace the city’s oldest public housing complex. Crucial to all this work has been the support of our partners like Blue-Green Alliance, which has helped promote research on the labor benefits of a transition to fossil fuel-free steelmaking and other industrial decarbonization processes, assisted with Pennsylvania’s 48C tax credit for high-quality jobs as part of advanced energy projects, and partnered on advocacy work around regional hydrogen hubs.

> IMPACT: We’ve created openings for informed community-led decision-making and region-wide adoption of a new theory of economic development that maximizes shared local prosperity.

As ORVI’s third year of operation comes to a close, it’s clear our work has set the stage for a reimagining of the Ohio River Valley. Our research has helped shift the narrative around the economic importance of the gas and petrochemical industries and ushered in increased skepticism of their role in the region’s future. Coupled with our real, tangible blueprints for community-based economic development, we’ve created hope that shared local prosperity throughout Appalachia is not only possible, but on the near horizon.