Charting a Course for Appalachia’s Economic Transition

A Blueprint for Job Growth and Decarbonization

For generations, Appalachia has powered the nation’s industrial growth with our region’s  bountiful reserves of coal, gas, and oil. Today, our communities are suffering the effects of that legacy of extraction—air and water pollution, rampant greenhouse gas emissions, and local economies hollowed out by an industry structurally incapable of generating job growth and prosperity.  

For more than a decade, we have been promised economic revival. It has yet to come. The lionized natural gas boom yielded an economic bust, as the region’s largest gas-producing counties saw declines in their share of the nation’s jobs, income, and population. Appalachia’s “petrochemical renaissance” has also fizzled, with little chance of recovery. The massive infrastructure buildout promised to our region, complete with five ethane crackers, a 500-mile pipeline network, and an Appalachian Storage Hub, largely failed to materialize. The only project to even pass the starting line, Shell’s petrochemicals complex in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, has so far faltered economically, failing to generate job and business growth or reduce poverty in the county.

New schemes for hydrogen and carbon capture hubs are yet another false promise. Large-scale carbon capture is unproven and exorbitantly expensive. Retrofitting the nation’s electric sector with the technology would cost about $1 trillion over ten years. At the same time, truly emission-free green hydrogen development should be reserved for the niche, hard-to-electrify sectors in which it is feasible and economic: long-haul trucking, aviation, and industrial applications like cement production. 

Appalachians are tired of false promises. It’s time for a new direction. The transition to clean, renewable energy is a proven job creator and a crucial component of reducing climate-warming carbon emissions. Ohio River Valley Institute research details how a series of economic development strategies can spur local job growth and prosperity while mitigating our region’s greenhouse gas output:

1. Replicate the Centralia Model for Economic Transition in Distressed Communities

The thriving former coal town of Centralia, Washington presents a real-life model of successful energy transition replicable in Appalachia. Centralia’s largest employer, the local coal mine, shuttered in 2006, and the town’s coal-fired power plant announced a 2025 retirement plan shortly afterward. On the brink of economic disaster, Centralia negotiated a $55 million economic transition plan with TransAlta, owner of the coal mine and power plant, to fund energy efficiency retrofits, clean energy development, and education programs. It has been enormously successful—between 2016, when grants were first disbursed, and 2019, the Centralia MSA saw GDP growth and job growth approximately double the national average

In that time, Centralia added more than 2,800 new jobs to an economy that only had 24,000 to begin with. The program’s success is due to innate characteristics of energy efficiency, energy, and education development: these sectors have high jobs-intensity relative to capital-intensive sectors like oil and gas; they engage local businesses, institutions, and programs rather than bringing in resources from outside the community; and they produce annuity benefits, increase disposable income, and enhance quality of life. Investing in these sectors with policies like Pennsylvania’s proposed Whole Home Repairs Act (S.B. 1135), which creates a one-stop shop for comprehensive weatherization and home repair projects for households, can boost jobs, reduce emissions, and spur economic growth in Appalachia. 

2. Clean up Appalachia’s abandoned mine lands and hazardous coal ash sites

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 (IIJA) earmarks $11.3 billion for abandoned mine land (AML) cleanup over 15 years. This historic investment in abandoned mine land remediation will reduce the environmental and public health effects of AML damage, such as water pollution, mine fires, and methane leakage, and will support or create more than 4,000 reclamation jobs and thousands more jobs throughout the economy each year. Efficient use of federal funding and robust labor standards, including prevailing wage requirements, will maximize the economic and environmental impact of these funds. 

Hazardous ash from coal processing, transportation, combustion, and disposal is one of the largest waste streams in the Ohio River Valley and the nation, posing severe public health risks to nearby communities. Cleaning up coal ash sites can help protect frontline communities while creating hundreds of jobs per year.

3. Plug Appalachia’s abandoned oil and gas wells

The four-state Ohio River Valley region, which includes West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky, is home to an estimated 538,000 unplugged abandoned oil and gas wells and tens of thousands of additional “stripper” wells—low-producing wells that will soon need to be plugged. If left unchecked, Appalachia’s abandoned well crisis could balloon into a public liability nightmare. Because the operators of these wells aren’t required to set aside funding for well remediation upfront, the public could be on the hook for billions in clean-up costs. 

However, the $4.7 billion set aside in the IIJA for plugging the nation’s abandoned oil and gas wells could be a boon for Appalachia. If allocated effectively, the funds could create more than 15,000 jobs per year over 20 years in the four-state region.

4. Institute the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in Pennsylvania

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is the nation’s first cap-and-invest program for greenhouse gas emissions. If Pennsylvania joins the inter-state compact,  a significant share of the program’s proceeds, which are expected to reach $300 million, could support investment and recovery strategies in economically struggling coal plant communities. The program has a track record of job creation and pollution reduction: RGGI states have halved carbon emissions from power plants, generated billions in state revenues, and created tens of thousands of jobs.

5. Revitalize the Civilian Conservation Corps

The original Civilian Conservation Corps employed millions of young American men to develop infrastructure, construct parks, improve farmland, and more. A new Civilian Climate Corps could employ thousands of out-of-work people,  including formerly incarcerated residents, young adults, and unemployed and underemployed workers, in carbon farming jobs: planting trees to reforest the region and restore wetlands, growing small farms using regenerative agricultural practices, and other innovative economic development areas. Careful operation could ensure a revamped Corps primarily serves under-resourced communities; provides job opportunities for people without college degrees; pays a living wage with benefits; and offers pathways to union membership.

6. Invest in the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC)

For generations, Appalachia has undergone a sort of “growth without development,” as the wealth generated from the region’s resources dissipated elsewhere. A reinvigorated Appalachian Regional Commission could help the region bridge the gap in economic and social development, revitalizing downtowns by investing in new small businesses, helping communities recover from the ravages of the decade-long opioid crisis, and building more pathways to meaningful work for the generation of children who are now in Appalachia’s schools.