Invigorating a region’s economy by thinking small

A team led by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Sustainable Business has published what they call a “Marshall Plan for Middle America Roadmap.” In it, they outline how a four-state chunk of the Ohio River Valley can pivot from an economy that still has strong ties to fossil fuels and extraction industries like coal mining toward one that uses more renewable energy and results in fewer carbon emissions.

The research team begins by assuming a path that will lead to a 50% contraction in the region’s fossil fuel-related economic activity between 2021 and 2030. That’s on top of the contraction that has been underway since the mid-1990s.

Appalachian coal production has declined in part because of the rise of low-sulfur coal from surface mines in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming. Environmental worries over acid rain led to regulations aimed at cutting emissions of sulfur dioxide from coal-fired power plants. Switching to coal from the Powder River Basin helped many power companies come into regulatory compliance. One sector that suffered as a result was Appalachian coal.

A storefront in Newcomerstown, Ohio. Summer 2018.

Some of the job losses have been mitigated in recent years by the oil and gas industry. The adoption of hydraulic fracturing techniques created boom times for oil and natural gas production in the Marcellus shale of Pennsylvania and the Utica formation of Ohio. It’s worth remembering that before Oklahoma, Texas and even Saudi Arabia, this part of the United States was the world’s oil capitol. John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company was founded in Cleveland, which for years was the dominant center for refining and oil transportation.

In their report, the University of Pittsburgh authors also point out that many communities across Appalachia and the Ohio River Valley suffer due to the effects of environmental degradation. Communities have higher than average poverty and unemployment rates, and lower rates of educational attainment. A host of socioeconomic ills coincide with what the report says are negative health outcomes in the region. These ills include higher rates of depression, suicide, diabetes, obesity, substance abuse, and premature deaths due to pollution exposure.

States within the study area–which includes parts of Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia–already have shed thousands of jobs in related industries.

In 2018, West Virgina’s coal mining industry counted about 13,000 workers; the oil and gas industry about 11,000. Taken together, these two industries made up no more than 3.2% of the state’s overall employment. Comparable employment figures were 1% in Ohio, 0.9% in Pennsylvania and 0.7% in Kentucky.

Some of my ancestors farmed not far from this quiet spot in Holmes County, Ohio. I took this photo in late June 2018.

The authors suggest that these statewide employment shares are “relatively low,”especially in Pennsylvania and Ohio. But they also estimate that eight Ohio counties may experience private sector employment losses of 2% or more
between in the coming decade due to the state’s fossil fuel industry contraction. Monroe County, which borders the Ohio River in the southeastern part of the state, could suffer employment losses equal to about 14% of private

Economic issues in this part of the Ohio River Valley are not isolated to energy. Some of the most vulnerable communities have had their cores hollowed out as big-box stores and discount retailers wiped out local merchants. A job restocking shelves at the Wal-Mart out by the bypass isn’t the same as a job in the family’s clothing store.

For me, then, any “Marshall Plan” would need to be built on a foundation of respect for and support of local businesses. Simply stated, Wal-Mart killed Main Street retail in small towns all across the region. Renewal must have, as one of its foundational elements, a focus on rebuilding the honorable profession of small town merchant.

At the same time, decarbonized energy solutions should be local as well: rooftop solar and storage; run-of-stream hydro where available; and ridge-line wind turbines where feasible. Distributed energy resources increasingly are feasible alternatives that reduce carbon emissions and expand local control over energy production.

My ancestors’ reliance on community and local control can help inform today’s efforts to reimagine the Ohio River Valley’s economy. I took this photo near the aptly named Farmerstown, Ohio, in June 2018.

Make no mistake, much of the region lends itself to local empowerment and problem solving. The region’s terrain means that towns often are separated from one another by tall hills or deep valleys. Because of this, the region has a history of success with local control and solutions. Rural electric cooperatives and farm cooperatives have existed for years. Their model of local control and decision making offers a useful blueprint as Ohio River Valley communities reinvigorate their economies.

What would emerge, then, would be a myriad of self-sustaining communities all across the region. Micro electric power grids based in renewable energy resources and owned cooperatively would power the communities. Micro-finance concepts that have been used successfully around the world could be used to support local stores. Locally focused, locally owned farms and businesses would support the people who live there.

Most important, work would not be a commodity to support a distant owner’s stockholders, but a vocation capable of renewing the senses of dignity and purpose that we all crave.

My ancestors worked fields very close to this one–and in much the same way!–in rural Holmes County, Ohio. I took this photo in late June 2018.

Author: David Wagman

I live in Colorado where I write about a wide range of topics, and get outside regularly to hike, bike, garden and walk the dog!