Barring any unforeseen surprises between now and when the Electoral College votes next month, Democrat Joe Biden will be the nation’s 46th president. And that means the region’s embattled coal industry can expect to see all kinds of new obstacles coming from Washington.
Given this likely scenario, there is an even greater need now to expedite ongoing economic diversification efforts across the coalfield counties of southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia. Biden has called for a carbon-free electrical grid in America within 15 years, and some of the more progressive members of his party would like for that to happen even sooner.
While the industry enjoyed a reprieve from crippling anti-coal regulations during the four-year tenure of President Donald Trump, green energy will be at the forefront of the Biden administration, a move that will likely accelerate the decline of coal.
One possible obstacle facing Biden’s climate push will be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, also a coal producing state. But it all depends upon the outcome of two runoff elections slated for Jan. 5 in Georgia that will ultimately determine control of the U.S. Senate. If Republicans win one of those two seats, they will retain majority control of the U.S. Senate and McConnell will remain the chamber’s majority leader. If Democrats win both U.S. Senate seats in Georgia on Jan. 5, the legislative chamber will be split 50-50 with Democratic Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris breaking tie votes. Advantage Democrats under that scenario.
But even if Republicans lose in Georgia, their numbers were still significantly strengthened Nov. 3 in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, which will make it harder for Democrats to pass measures that Republicans oppose, including the push to phase out vital fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas.
Locally, the good news is that efforts to diversify our regional economy have been ongoing for nearly 12 years now, and we have much to show for it. Technology and tourism have been at the forefront of economic diversification efforts, led by the arrival of technology giant Intuit in Bluefield and the new Prosperity Hub that Intuit, and its employment partner Alorica, is developing in the downtown. The Hatfield-McCoy Trail, and the Virginia-side Spearhead Trail, also has fueled a transformative ATV tourism engine for our region that is now a big part of our local economy.
Other key and transformative projects are looming, including Project Jonah in Tazewell County and the green-energy hydro-electric pump station project planned by Dominion Energy.
The pump station — planned for East River Mountain in Tazewell County — would create urgently needed new tax revenue for the coalfield counties of Southwest Virginia. It is considered clean, renewable energy, and fits perfectly with Biden’s climate vision.
The fish farm planned near Richlands will provide salmon to a worldwide market and employ at least 230 people. Another 300 temporary jobs also will be created during the construction phase of the $200 million effort known as “Project Jonah.”
Other projects also are still in the works that have great potential to create good-paying jobs and new tax revenue for the two-state region.
One thing is now certain. The days of putting all of our eggs in a single-coal production basket are gone.
Now, even more so than before, we must aggressively fast track economic diversification efforts given the new headwinds coming from Washington.