The region around Athens, Ohio, was once defined by its “Little Cities of Black Diamonds,” a term coined in the 19th century for dozens of newly prosperous communities built by coal. For generations, coal mining fueled the way of life in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Jobs put food on the table, and there was funding for good schools and support for thriving businesses. While the heyday of the “little cities” ended in the early 1900s, coal production continued to provide the backbone of the regional economy until its peak in the 1980s.
Today, the Athens region is no longer defined by bustling boomtowns but by the nearly 400 abandoned coal mines that shed close to 3,000 mining jobs since the early 2000s. In recent years, the coal industry accounted for fewer than 50 jobs in Athens. That’s thousands of workers left behind in a county with a poverty rate — roughly 30 percent — that is double the statewide average.
For decades, coal-dependent regions like Athens have been on the front lines of the energy transition away from coal. Ensuring opportunity for fossil fuel workers and communities is one of the thorniest challenges still standing in the way of passing meaningful — and equitable — federal climate policy.
Over the past year, our respective organizations reviewed more than 100 federal policies that can support workers and their communities and interviewed local experts for case studies on coal-dependent regions around Athens, Ohio, and Colstrip, Mont. We learned lessons about how the federal government can ensure that former fossil fuel workers can access good jobs and their communities can enjoy a healthy environment. The Biden administration has already shown its willingness to tackle these issues head-on with the formation of a new interagency working group to facilitate investment in these communities — but the next steps are concrete policy action and significant investment.
There is no one solution. Retraining workers will be important, but federal policy will also need to support the emerging sectors and industries where these workers can find jobs. Local businesses and nonprofits in Athens, for example, have worked to scale up the wood products industry, which has offered some critical employment in the wake of mine and plant closures. In addition, local economic development professionals in the region are focused on fostering local food production and other homegrown sectors. Such strategies can be adopted across the country and tailored to a given region’s resources and needs. What works in Athens, for example, may not work in California’s oil-producing Central Valley.
Federal policies also can lay the physical foundation for future prosperity. According to economic development officials that our organizations interviewed in Athens, one of the biggest needs for attracting new investment is broadband Internet access, which 75 percent of the eight-county region lacked in 2019. For rural counties, expanding broadband infrastructure and transportation will be essential to unlocking new markets. So will cleaning up a legacy of pollution, whether from coal mining or orphaned oil and gas wells, which will improve public health while providing near-term jobs and supporting the growth of sectors like outdoor recreation and agriculture.
Federal support of local priorities is essential, and empowering locals to drive initiatives will help ensure their success. The Appalachian Regional Commission, a state-federal partnership to bolster economic development in coal communities, offers a model of concerted community engagement that also amplifies the voices of marginalized communities.
There is no time to lose. Investments in these regions should begin even as additional research and engagement with communities on the ground — essential to informing effective policy — continues. That means gaining a better understanding of the scale of resources required to support an equitable transition, identifying which economic development strategies are most likely to succeed in different regions, and distilling lessons from previous economic transitions.
For more than 150 years, energy workers from Ohio and beyond have fueled our way of life. Now is the time to lay the groundwork for an equitable transition for these workers and communities while advancing policies to avert the worst impacts of climate change. These challenges can, and should, be addressed in tandem.