Federal group says Southwest Virginia is fourth most coal-dependent area in U.S.

An A&G Coal mine in Southwest Virginia, July 2019. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

A federal working group convened to examine how the economies of communities dependent on fossil fuels can be revitalized as the nation transitions to renewable energy has identified Southwest Virginia as the fourth most coal-dependent area in the U.S. 

The finding, which is based on the percentage of total direct coal jobs relative to all employees within a region, designates Southwest Virginia as a priority community for “initial federal investments.” Thirteen counties, from Lee in the state’s westernmost tip to Patrick farther east, and three cities are included in the federal government’s definition of the area.

Roughly $38 billion in federal funding could be available for communities likely to be hard-hit by coal mine and power plant closures.

The findings appeared Friday in the first report issued by the Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities, which consists of 11 federal agencies and the Appalachian Regional Commission and was created by President Joe Biden by executive order in January. 

Of the 25 most coal-dependent areas identified by the working group, the top four are all found in the Appalachian region. 

Southwest Virginia’s coal dependency is outstripped only by that of the southern West Virginia non-metropolitan area, the East Kentucky non-metropolitan area and the Wheeling, West Virginia-Ohio area.

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According to Friday’s report, the Appalachian region is “home to seven of the top 20 producing coal mines in the country; four of the top 20 by power generation capacity coal power plants; five refineries; more than 169,000 active oil and gas wells, representing 22% of active oil and gas wells in the United States; and two of the top 20 producing natural gas power plants. This region also hosts more than 18,000 miles of hydrocarbon pipeline infrastructure.” 

Tom Cormons, executive director of nonprofit Appalachian Voices, in a news release called the working group report “a welcome and critically important response.”

“Communities in Appalachia and other coal regions who powered our country for more than a century have been working for years to restore their environments and revitalize their economies, pressing the federal government to step up with engagement and investment matching the scale of the challenges,” he said. 

Among the report’s recommendations is for a “listening tour” to be organized that would send a senior Biden administration official to each of the 25 high-priority communities within the next three months. These officials would be charged with setting up a stakeholder group in each community and soliciting local ideas and policy recommendations.