America’s coal heartland to capitalise on ambitious climate change plans

West Virginians do not want to be left behind when the US re-enters the Paris Agreement

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Larry and Andy Endicott work in unison on a cold West Virginia morning. Their calloused hands grab wood floorboards from one pile, their eyes carefully scan each plank, checking for flaws , and then with a flick of their wrists, they move the wood to another pile.

The father and son are crew chiefs for Revitalise Appalachia, a green-collar construction initiative that trains West Virginians in sustainable construction techniques.

"It means the world to me. It's something I'm proud of. I've done it for 10 years. I really enjoy what I do," said Larry, 54.

But Larry did not always work in construction. For years he was a diesel mechanic for a coal company. The work was hard but the money was good.

"When it was booming, it was wide open. It was a good time. It was just a fast-living pace. Everybody was in a hurry. Coal was on top and it had to be moved to make money, and as long as the trucks were moving, everybody made money," he said.

Like so many in West Virginia, the Endicotts survived off the jet-black rock that helped power America’s development. Andy, 30, went to work in the coal industry right out of high school.

“My brother was working on the coal docks and he got me into riverman class. You need that to become a sample man,” he said.

For more than a century, the fortunes of West Virginians like the Endicotts were at the mercy of the energy market. When coal was up, life was good. But when it is down – and these days it mostly is – life is hard.

West Virginia has some of the highest poverty rates in the country. In 2020, 16 per cent of people lived below the poverty line, earning less than $25,926 a year.

The state has some of the highest rates of health problems and has been at the centre of the nation’s opioid crisis for the past decade.

“The substance abuse epidemic is directly connected to the economic hopelessness that we’re feeling here,” said Brandon Dennison, chief executive of Coalfield Development, a group that champions a new and diversified economy for the state.

At its high point in the 1950s, more than 100,000 West Virginians were employed by coal mines. Today, that number has dropped to below 14,000, although the state’s coal lobby refutes that statistic.

“When you factor in all the indirect jobs, all the technical service jobs that are involved with the coal industry, we’re at several hundred thousand jobs, not a mere 12 or 13,” said Chris Hamilton, president of the West Virginia Coal Association.

During his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump promised to bring coal back to West Virginia. Mr Hamilton believes he did.

“The industry came back on the order of magnitude of 20 to 25 per cent, and the cuts were so severe from the previous administration in their move away from coal that we’re still experiencing some fallout from Obama and [then] vice president Biden’s energy plans.”

Under former president Barack Obama, the United States joined the Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty on climate change. The important deal had countries pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to reach a climate-neutral world by 2050.

In the US, that meant continuing to transition away from fossil fuels such as coal.

When president, Mr Trump broke from the Paris Agreement, briefly breathing new life into the dying industry. But President Joe Biden has pledged to rejoin the agreement and committed the US to the most ambitious environmental policies in the country's history.

Mr Biden’s fast-moving actions to tackle climate change have some in coal country concerned, “particularly when the Paris Accord will result in hundreds of thousands of jobs lost throughout the United States and cost virtually trillions of dollars”, Mr Hamilton said.

Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican senator for West Virginia, said the president’s executive orders on climate change signalled “America is heading backwards” on energy, despite Mr Biden promising opportunities for regions dependent on coal.

“We’re never going to forget the men and women who dug the coal and built the nation,” Mr Biden said. “We’re going to do right by them and make sure they have opportunities to keep building the nation and their own communities and getting paid well for it.”

But far away from the halls of the Capitol, even those in coal country who see an opportunity in the move away from fossil fuels are wary of Mr Biden’s plans.

In January, a coalition of 13 groups called on Mr Biden’s administration to fund a "just transition" from coal to renewable energy. They also asked the administration to create a White House Office of Economic Transition focused on rebuilding the economies of coal communities.

“I think climate change is the defining issue of our lifetime and I think a lot of times coal country is thought of as collateral damage in the transition. The thinking is, ‘Well, we have to deal with climate change and that’s too bad for these other communities and maybe we can retrain them and give them some wage support’, whereas I think we need to flip that,” said Mr Dennison, whose group, Coalfield Development, signed the letter.

The 34-year-old West Virginia native spent the past decade helping people like the Endicotts move from coal-related jobs to a variety of other sectors, including renewable energy.

While the influential coal lobby clings to power in West Virginia, the move away from fossil fuel has been under way for years, Mr Dennison said.

The state has recorded growth in the solar and wind energy sectors. Last month, Governor Jim Justice announced that construction had begun on a major new wind farm in the north-east of the state. The project from Clearway Energy will employ upward of 200 people in the construction of the farm and bring in "millions of dollars of spending in the local community", Mr Justice said.

But there is still resistance. The state has refused to allow power purchase agreements, which are a key element of the solar industry.

These agreements allow people to buy solar panels through instalments rather than through bulk purchases. Without the state legislature approving these kinds of purchases, the solar industry will remain stunted.

“I think it’s really important for West Virginia to recognise the opportunity that renewable energies represent for the state as our entire energy system shifts to one based on renewable energy, which is already very much under way,” said Autumn Long, regional director of Solar United Neighbours, a group that helps communities to go solar and lobbies the state on behalf of the industry.

West Virginians are proud of their history in coal, but many also realise it is just that.

"I think folks here are more aware and more accepting than ever before that coal is never going to be what it was, and so if we want to survive, if we want our kids and grandkids to be able to stay here, we're going to have to pivot," Mr Dennison said.

That is exactly what the Endicotts did, and they have not looked back.

“I don’t look to do nothing else. This is what I wake up every morning at 4am for. My feet are flat on the floor every morning with no alarm clock. We work right here five days a week,” Larry said with a glance at his son, who nodded in agreement.

Then the two continued moving floorboards, building something new.