Living in a region like Southwest Virginia, where coal mining has played such a large part in our history and heritage, it is not a surprise that in an election cycle that already has many people polarized that coal policy has become a major factor in this election. It is true that Alpha, a large mining company with a strong foothold in the Appalachian Mountains, recently laid off close to 1200 workers, and while many mining CEOs and the mining families who work for them have been quick to blame current Democratic administraition policies, Big Coal’s real enemy may just be something that many economic conservatives hail as the solution to most of our economic problems: the free market.
Right now, coal is taking quite the proverbial beating from natural gas, which is seeing its lowest prices in decades. Add to that a relatively mild winter in 2011, and demand for coal just isn’t what it was a few years ago. As green energy sources like wind and solar become more cost-effective, the demand for coal is going to go even lower, which will inevitably lead to more jobs lost in this region, a region which has already been dealt its share of economic woes. In Lee County, where I am originally from before moving to Norton earlier this year, 22.7 percent of the population lives under the poverty line. As coal jobs decrease, that number is only going to increase.
Is there a solution and a way forward for areas that have traditionally relied on coal jobs as a major driving force in their economies? I believe there is, and that is for there to be a major investment in and embrace of green energy technologies by both local governments and businesses. Unfortunately, southwest Virginia has always been an area that, for better or worse, has seen the past through the rose tinted glasses of optimism and nostalgia, and whether the people of the region will embrace green technologies as the economic force that they could become over the next few decades remains to be seen.