New think tank offers Appalachia economic alternatives to gas and petrochemicals

August 19, 2020
Media Contact: Sean O’Leary 603-661-3586

For immediate release

Ohio River Valley Institute announced

New think tank to promote new economic strategies to create jobs and prosperity in the greater Ohio Valley and Western Pennsylvania

PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania — The Ohio River Valley Institute, a new think tank devoted to achieving lasting job growth and greater equity though the embrace of the clean energy economy and more inclusive democratic processes was unveiled today.

The Institute’s focus will be the Appalachian regions of Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky. Its mission will be to equip residents and decision makers with in-depth research, analysis, and commentary to advance long-term solutions to some of Appalachia’s most pressing economic and social challenges.

The need for new, evidence-based perspectives on public policy is acute in a region where, for more than a decade, purported “economic game-changers”, including the natural gas fracking boom and a proposed buildout of the petrochemical and plastics industries, have conspicuously failed to deliver on promises of jobs and prosperity. Meanwhile, other regions of the country, which have embraced the emerging clean energy economy and more inclusive policymaking, have experienced healthy growth in jobs and commerce.

“Places as diverse as New England, Texas, and the Northwest, were seeing excellent jobs and economic growth before the coronavirus crisis,” explained Joanne Kilgour, the Institute’s executive director, who was formerly the Pennsylvania chapter director for the Sierra Club. “Learning from those experiences can help us reverse the employment stagnation and population decline, which have plagued the greater Ohio Valley and Western Pennsylvania since the dawn of the fracking boom.”

“We’ve spoken with economists, policy analysts, and community leaders who agree that a massive buildout of polluting industries isn’t a plausible economic strategy and that pursuing it will squander public resources that could be better used to develop better options,” Kilgour said.

That view was recently expressed by a group of economists and a former Pennsylvania secretary of environmental protection in a public letter to the governors of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. The organizer of that letter, Sean O’Leary, will serve as a senior researcher at the Institute. “A decade ago policymakers failed to recognize economic factors that are devastating the coal industry and turning the fracking boom into a sea of red ink. Now, they’re in danger of doing the same in their efforts to promote a vision of fossil fuel and petrochemical growth that isn’t supported by the economics,” said O’Leary who comes to the Ohio River Valley Institute from the NW Energy Coalition.

The successes in other regions makes the Institute’s other staffers optimistic about Appalachia’s prospects. Ted Boettner, founder and long-time executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, who also serves as a senior researcher, sees an opportunity for prosperity through a combination of innovative fiscal and economic policies and the development of clean energy resources.

“I’ve worked with great people devising policies that have the potential to increase incomes, commerce, and jobs not just in West Virginia, but in the region. The Institute represents an opportunity to bring those ideas together in a vision and blueprint for policymakers,” said Boettner. “For a long time, we’ve been swimming against the tide by relying heavily on failing fossil fuel industries. This is our chance to swim with the tide while also achieving just transitions for workers and communities that are being damaged by the decline of those industries.

The fourth member of the team, Eric de Place, will serve as a research fellow while continuing to serve on the staff of Sightline Institute. Sightline institute is a primary resource for progressive policymaking in the Pacific Northwest and is well-known for its “Thin Green Line” initiative, which played a critical role in reducing global fossil fuel consumption by blocking new coal, oil, and gas infrastructure on the west coast.

“Good environmental policy is great economic policy,” explained de Place. “We’ve seen how energy efficiency and renewable portfolio standards, clean energy investments, and other measures stimulate the economy and jobs growth, cut energy costs, and reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. We can destroy the myth that there’s a tradeoff between jobs and the environment.”

Ohio River Valley Institute staff members will seek regular input on economic, technology, and equity issues from an Advisory Board that includes:

  • Anthony Ingraffea, Ph.D and Professor Emeritus of Civil Engineering at Cornell University
  • Jill Kriesky, Ph.D and former Senior Project Coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health
  • Lou Martin, Ph.D and Associate Professor of History at Chatham University
  • Matthew Mehalik, Ph.D and Adjunct Professor of Environmental Policy at Heinz College, School of Public Policy and Management, Carnegie Mellon University
  • Nicholas Muller, Ph.D and Associate Professor of Economics, Engineering, and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University
  • Mark Partridge, Ph.D and Professor of Economics and Swank Chair of Rural and Urban Policy at The Ohio State University
  • Mark Paul, Ph.D and Assistant Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies at the New College of Florida
  • John Russo, Ed.D and visiting scholar at Georgetown University and Professor Emeritus at Youngstown State University
  • Heather Stephens, Ph.D and Associate Professor of Resource Economics and Management at West Virginia University
  • Monica Unseld, Ph.D, MPH and Founder at Data for Justice and Director of Community Engagement at the Greater Louisville Project
  • James Van Nostrand, J.D. and Director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development and Professor of Law at West Virginia University
  • Amanda Weinstein, Ph.D and Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Akron
  • Jaimie Worker, M.S.W. and Senior State Policy Coordinator at the Economic Policy Institute

In addition to issuing policy white papers and studies, the Ohio River Valley Institute will maintain a blog on its website to address current issues, and will host and facilitate webinars and symposia to bring together policymakers and experts to explore and develop solutions. The Institute website and contact information for staff members may be found at

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Sean O'Leary

Sean O’Leary, senior researcher, energy and petrochemicals, is a native of Wheeling, WV. He has written about coal, natural gas, and their role in the economies of Appalachia in a book, a newspaper column, and blog titled, “The State of My State”. Previously, Sean served as communications director at the NW Energy Coalition in Seattle, Washington.