Far too often when the subject of the future of coal comes up in West Virginia, the discussion takes a predictable and unconstructive turn: You’re either for coal or you are against it.
If you have recognized a pressing need to diversify the economy, critics say you don’t care about jobs and are not supporting the industry to the fullest.
For me personally, nothing could be further from the truth. I have and will continue to support the West Virginia coal miner and an industry that has provided southern West Virginia with quality jobs for generations.
However, as demand for West Virginia coal continues to decrease (175 million tons produced in 2001 compared with 129 million in 2012) along with coal jobs, families in our region that rely on the industry are worried about the future of their livelihoods and communities.
These fears are precisely why it is imperative for leaders in the region to make a clear distinction between planning for a secure future and abandoning coal altogether.
Coal will remain a vital part of our state’s economy for years to come but it is a finite resource and eventually it will no longer be the nation’s leading resource for affordable energy.
We simply have to look at ways to ensure southern West Virginia’s prosperity for generations into the future.
That is why I am a strong advocate of creating a Future Fund for economic diversification using a portion of the severance tax gained from the now booming Marcellus shale industry in our state.
Several other states have done this to ensure that the temporary boost of a minerals-based economy turns into something more permanent.
They have done this by creating permanent severance trust funds.
A portion of severance funds are placed into a trust fund that is allowed to accumulate over the years. Income from these funds has been used in a variety of ways including making long-term investments in economic development and education, supplementing the general fund during temporary economic downturns and replacing revenue from a decrease in personal income taxes.
Over the last three legislative sessions, I, along with a host of other senators, have worked on this Future Fund bill. It has yet to pass, but each year we are getting more support and we are hopeful we can make this happen in 2014.
Western states such as Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico, North Dakota and Utah set up funds in the 1970s.
Today, they channel millions into education, health, economic development and other priorities in those states. They will continue to do so even after the minerals are gone.
If West Virginia had set up a fund in 1980 using portions of our coal severance tax, the people could be spending the interest on nearly $2 billion today.
I see economic diversification in southern West Virginia and the 7th senatorial district as a two- step process.
The Marcellus shale Future Fund legislation is the long term answer that if implemented, will begin paying huge dividends a generation from now.
The short term solution is a bill that we passed in 2011 that gives another five percent of the coal severance tax (one percent per year) to the mineral rich counties.
In the past, the original seven percent severance tax was allowed to be used in any way the county commission saw fit.
Given the recent tough economic times, the tax was often used to run the day to day government rather than funding projects that look to the future.
Over the last two years we have begun phasing in this extra five percent to our counties and the key here is that the money can only be used for economic development projects and infrastructure. This “Economic Diversification Fund” can give our economy an immediate shot in the arm.
In southern West Virginia and particularly in 7th District, the possibilities for the use of this money are endless. Providing basic infrastructure along our major highways such as Corridor G would allow the development of sites that have been mined and are ready to be used for a myriad of purposes, including housing outside of the flood plain.
If we invest properly the next area for rapid development will be the Route 119 corridor south of Charleston to Madison and Logan.
Three major surface mines will allow for tens of thousands of acres to be developed.
As an example of the potential, one only has to look at Wash Branch in northern Boone County where Massey and now Alpha Natural Resources located its regional headquarters and its new remarkable mine training facility.
All it took was a large water line along Corridor G to transform this former mine site into an incredibly modern facility.
The Fork Creek, Hill Fort and Hobet 21 sites are other areas that have tremendous potential for economic development and diversification.
I pledge to continue to advocate for the economic importance of West Virginia’s energy resources and to rally support for retention of coal-powered electric generation to ensure that we continue to have access to affordable electricity.
We must continue to market our state as a location where industrial energy users have access to affordable, reliable electricity supplies.
However as we advocate and offer our support, we must do so with an eye toward the future. We simply can’t wait any longer. It is time for West Virginia to secure its own future and create funds that will turn our ample natural resources into a permanent source of sustainable wealth. The Marcellus shale Future Fund and the “Economic Diversification Fund” are the avenues to get us there.