The changed landscape of coal politics

Published 2:09 pm Tuesday, January 30, 2024

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By Olivia Weeks

The Daily Yonder

Gabe Schwartzman is an assistant professor in the University of Tennessee’s Department of Geography and Sustainability and a former Daily Yonder contributor. He studies rural economic transitions and the decline of coal in Appalachia.

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Enjoy our conversation about post-coal politics, carbon offset forestry, and the failures of rural development aimed at corporations, not people.


Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: Let’s start with your background – where are you from? How did you end up interested in Appalachian geography and political economy?

Gabe Schwartzman: I’m originally from the Washington, D.C. area and I got involved in rural politics and Appalachian movements around environmental justice more than a decade ago when I joined the movement against mountaintop removal in West Virginia. So I came to care about rural politics through an interest in climate justice. Naively or not, I was interested in trying to create and be a part of a just energy transition away from fossil fuels back in 2007 and 2008, in an earlier phase of the youth climate movement. Being in West Virginia opened my eyes to a lot of the complexities of trying to create a just energy transition.


DY: Yeah, I wanted to ask about the mountaintop removal protest scene – were there a lot of people from out of town like you coming into the area to protest? What was the relationship with locals like?

GS: Yeah, there was a national call put out for activists and organizers to come be part of that, which is a strategy people have litigated ever since. But there were also a lot of local people involved. So it was a really interesting mix of local activists and local leaders who were the organizers of the anti-strip mining movement in the early 2000s – people like Judy Bonds – and then people more plugged-in to the national climate justice movement. Some of my best friends today are people from the coalfields who I made connections with at the time who were leading and giving direction to that movement. But it was a complicated moment, too, with a bunch of out-of-town activists coming in. The pro-coal right definitely used that effectively to generate opposition to our movement.

So I started thinking about big questions in rural politics in that moment of environmental justice organizing because there was such a strong, and I think legitimate, backlash from working class communities. I think a lot of people felt like there weren’t enough good answers to what was going to happen to them when the coal industry shut down. And ever since then I’ve rotated through a series of questions about what actually happens to communities when these industries decline, and the politics of those transitions.


DY: You’ve written about the difference between the pro-coal politics of 10 or 15 years ago and the post-coal politics of the present. I wonder if you can say a little bit more about the distinction between those positions.

GS: You know, the coal industry in Appalachia has really precipitously declined in economic activity since 2011. In the last decade, production and employment figures have fallen to historic lows. In some places like east Tennessee mining has stopped entirely. In other places like eastern Kentucky we’ve seen major drops in coal production, falling by as much as 80%. So there are just material changes in the industry. But the way that people have processed and lived with those changes has also been pretty distinct. A decade ago there was still real pro-coal sentiment. I think it’s increasingly clear that – although those sentiments and those politics are still alive and you still have politicians like Joe Manchin and Mitch McConnell being hyper-advocates for the coal industry – the grassroots support for the idea of bringing back the coal industry is just not as robust as it once was. It’s definitely not as ubiquitous. You might see bumper stickers that say “Friends of Coal” but there’s not the same impassioned politics that there was in, say, 2012.


DY: Right, well, Donald Trump was president for four years and he couldn’t revive the coal industry so you can imagine how that might have sucked some life out of that movement.

GS: Exactly. And in my own research I’ve documented a change in the way that economic development practitioners and local governments more broadly speak about their economies. In recent years, they’re more able to ask “What does it look like to build new types of economies?” As few as five years ago, even that conversation felt kind of impossible. It was difficult to even ask, “What does an economy beyond coal look like?” That’s no longer a third-rail issue.


DY: Can you outline the different proposed visions for a post coal economy that you’ve studied? And then I know that you have a pretty deep critique of some of those approaches, so can you talk about the visions of the future they imply?

GS: So there’s a set of interventions being talked about – in some cases being implemented – to create economic development and “economic diversification” in coalfield communities. Those are often spearheaded by local government, private philanthropy, and at times social movements. And then there are unplanned transitions happening, sort of whether people like it or not, which often look like unplanned abandonment of people and communities.

One unplanned transition taking place is that carbon forestry offsets have sprung up throughout central Appalachia. Nobody planned it this way, but Appalachia now has the third highest concentration of carbon forestry offsets in California’s carbon market.

I think you’re asking more about the government interventions led by the Appalachian Regional Commission, typified, I think, by the POWER program started under the Obama administration in 2015, which is still one of the only real economic transition programs operating specifically for Appalachian coal communities. In my piece I critique that program for not creating outcomes that changed people’s quality of life, and for following what scholars call a neoliberal model, which assumes that the free market will solve social problems.

But then I also want to flag that there are also a whole bunch of federal programs that are not within the Appalachian Regional Commission’s domain, and in particular the Biden Administration’s clean energy programs from the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. Those measures target what they call “energy communities,” which include most of Appalachian coal country. I think those programs follow a really different kind of model, and are really trying to get public money into these communities. It’s not uncomplicated but it’s certainly different from what the Regional Commission has presented in the past.


DY: I want to backtrack to something you mentioned a minute ago – can you speak about the carbon forestry offsets in more detail? As I was reading your article on this topic I was having a hard time understanding how the money flows work. Just in basic terms, whose land is being purchased and for what purpose? And where’s the money going?

GS: Carbon offsets are extremely confusing even to people who study them. So many people in Appalachia, even people who live around carbon offset projects, have no idea that they exist. I’ve sent maps to a friend who lives beneath a carbon offset overlay and had no idea about it. And his attitude was like, “How could they be getting a carbon offset when they’re also doing mountaintop removal?” It can all feel really contradictory.

There are voluntary offsets which people and companies can purchase by choice and then there are compliance offsets which companies use to abide by regulations. So in California they have a cap-and-trade system where big polluters have to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by a certain percent each year, or they can trade with other big polluters in the state, or they can purchase up to 8% of their emission reductions from offsets. Right now, California’s compliance carbon market is the largest in the country, and I think the fourth in the world. What actually happens is these big polluters like Chevron, Shell, any of the big utility companies in California, they purchase offsets from a market. They don’t actually go out and buy 500 trees in West Virginia, they buy a fungible set of offsets. California has pretty stringent requirements about the quality of these offsets – they’re supposed to at least be scientifically proven to reduce emissions.

And then how does this 100 tons of carbon get onto this California marketplace? Well, basically you have land owners in central Appalachia who commit to making their timberlands store more carbon than they would have under business-as-usual scenarios. So this requires a counterfactual. You’re not necessarily paying for new trees to be planted, what you’re purchasing is the promise of increased storage of carbon on timberland. And what that boils down to usually is someone lets their trees stand for a few years longer than they would have otherwise. So if you were going to cut them in a 20 year rotation, you might promise to cut them in a 25 year rotation instead. So this amounts to very marginal carbon benefits per acre.

Appalachia is a convenient site for this system because large landowners own millions and millions of acres in the former coalfields. So it’s very easy to institute really large carbon offset projects on lands that are already being timbered when you own all that land. A couple of large landowners are able to sell offsets much easier than a bunch of small landowners.


DY: So it’s not like a bunch of land is getting bought up for this purpose?

GS: No, so it’s typically existing landowners that have been involved in the coal and timber economy in Appalachia, sometimes since the 1880s. Often these are old industry actors with a lot of land who are able to make a fair amount of money from carbon offsets. But there have been some new actors, the largest of which is The Nature Conservancy, the world’s wealthiest environmental organization. They raised a bunch of venture capital from people who wanted to make sustainable investments and purchased about half a million acres across central Appalachia for what they’re calling the Cumberland Forest Project. A lot of the income that they’re generating off this land is from carbon offsets. So basically, they became one of the new actors buying out old coal industry landowners, who used to to lease the minerals for coal companies to mine.


DY: So what do you see as the harms of these projects if many residents don’t even know they’re going on?

GS: Well, amid large-scale economic abandonment and deindustrialization with no kind of social support for people who live in these areas, we’ve seen new investments come in that don’t benefit people. So there’s been economic abandonment for communities, but not for big corporations. So there’s that side of it – it’s rural development for corporations, not people.

Another example of that is the developing tourism economy, and especially the growth of All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) riding. There’ve been a number of public-private partnerships set up in Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Virginia to facilitate ATV tourism on private lands with public money. That generates a lot of new revenue and rent for the landowners. But for communities that live near these places, they’ve increasingly seen those lands become managed for tourists, and not for their communities. So people living in those places might have historically been able to access those lands for free to hunt or forage or even just spend time in the outdoors without needing a permit across onto the property. And increasingly these public-private partnerships are setting up pay-to-access regimes, reducing the amount of access that local communities have to the land.


DY: So, if all of these schemes are called rural development, how does that change the relationships between these disinvested communities and the government? Is that change the source of the harm?

GS: Well, first of all, losing access to the land reduces quality of life. But at the same time we see a general hollowing out of rural economies. So one of the main harms of rural development schemes is that they’ve generated millions and billions of dollars of investments that have not generated wellbeing for people. The harm of that is not just that the money doesn’t get spent in ways that materially improve people’s quality of life. It’s that, as rural economies are hollowed out, they will become resentful of the politics that allowed for that.

And often that is rightly targeted at the government that has been in cahoots with people profiting from suffering communities. So some of the politics that have led people to be anti-state in recent years might come from an actual analysis of the conditions on the ground where the state has been part of their economic ruin.


DY: Can you talk about some ways in which the state could start to restore some of that credibility?

GS: Right now, a lot can be done with the Biden Administration’s clean energy investments. The federal government could improve people’s lives and improve the credibility of state institutions for rural residents by making sure that those energy investments distribute benefits to local communities. There’s gonna be hundreds of billions of dollars spent in the next few years on new manufacturing facilities and new energy generation facilities. And a lot of these right now have high standards around labor and community benefits, including sometimes requiring community benefit agreements. Unfortunately, a lot of these programs as they move forward are not designed to involve grassroots or even kind of small scale actors, but to involve for-profit companies in, say, the solar industry, or battery manufacturing. But, through the community benefits plans and workforce standards there’s the potential for many of these projects to involve some smaller scale actors, and to generate benefits for rural communities through local-hire provisions and clear, material benefits going to local community organizations and government. That requires understanding what those institutions need and ensuring that these investments turn into material improvements in rural peoples lives. If there are billions of dollars invested in, say, eastern Kentucky, and eastern Kentuckians don’t see big changes in their lives, that’s going to be a political crisis.


DY: How can interested individuals participate in efforts to channel those resources in the right direction?

GS: There are a bunch of different organizing institutions that are working on this right now. Jobs with Justice is thinking pretty seriously about how to both expand union density and support rural communities, and how to make federal investments work for both those goals. And people should look into Reimagine Appalachia’s current projects. The Alliance for Appalachia and all of its member organizations are really leading on all of these issues, too, and have been for a long time. I think they understand that fighting for environmental justice also means fighting for a new economy that creates good jobs for rural communities.