Transition in Action: An Unofficial Appalachian Transition Timeline

Economic transition in eastern Kentucky and Central Appalachia is nothing new. Our economy has had to shift many times over the years as industries have come and gone, and boomed and busted. Even the most recent collapse of the coal industry has been a long-term transition as increased mechanization, technological advances and market forces have worked in concert to significantly decrease coal production.

There is a recent timeline of events, however, that outlines the rise of the just transition movement in eastern Kentucky and Central Appalachia over the last 8 years. This timeline demonstrates just how quickly this movement is gaining momentum.

2008: “War on Coal”

  • The coal industry – bolstered by supportive elected leaders – began to push the War on Coal narrative in 2008 – most especially during elections in all levels of government. The phrase was used as a rallying cry, and the narrative suggested that the coal industry was under attack by “outside agitators” who wished harm upon the industry and those who worked in it. The narrative left out any mention of the economic reasons for coal’s decline (market forces, increased natural gas production, depleted coal deposits). Instead, it falsely proposed that if the federal government would loosen regulations on the industry, it would boom once more.
  • The messaging was very successful. For years, it was pushed by Kentucky politicians running for office at every level, and it was a driving force behind getting many of them elected.
  • There existed a vacuum around the “War on Coal,” in which there seemed to be very little counter narrative about the vast opportunities and hope that existed in many Central Appalachian communities in spite of coal’s decline. Many people were working on a just transition, but not many people were talking about that, or providing a vision for a brighter future.
  • The Mountain Association for Community Economic Development and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth joined forces to create the Appalachian Transition Initiative (Full disclosure: The former ATI website eventually became this blog). Under ATI, a new vision for a brighter Appalachian future was developed and promoted. This new vision relied on local assets and seized upon the opportunity that many recognized was rising from the ashes of coal’s decline: The opportunity to shape the future economy according to what local people wanted it to be.

2010: The Midterm Elections

  • Many elected officials supportive of increased coal mining used the “War on Coal” narrative to win elections.

2012: Coal production and employment reached historic lows

  • Nearly 8,000 of about 16,000 coal jobs in Kentucky had been lost by the end of 2012, and production continued to free-fall. Many local leaders were desperate to bring in tax revenues as coal severance money started to dry up. Communities were struggling, and they were grieving the loss of an industry that had been their economic cornerstone and way of life for generations. (The most recent coal employment and production numbers can be accessed from the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet’s Kentucky Coal Report).

2013: Appalachia’s Bright Future and Shaping Our Appalachian Region

  • KFTC hosted the Appalachia’s Bright Future conference in Harlan, Ky. in April. The conference provided a space and the opportunity for discussion about an economic transition that would usher in sustainable prosperity for the region. Panels included a wide range of people from across the country, and the conference was attended by about 700 people.
  • Shaping Our Appalachian Region started as a bipartisan partnership between then-Democratic-Governor Steve Beshear and Republican U.S. Representative Hal Rogers. The initiative has “enable[d] the region to reassess its current challenges, and discuss ideas or innovations already underway which could be leveraged or aligned to capture emergent regional development opportunities.” It also has created “a neutral venue for the region’s organizations, institutions, businesses, leaders, and citizens to discuss a new beginning, hope, vision, and collaboration.” The first SOAR Summit – hosted in Pikeville, Ky., in December – was attended by close to 1,700 people.

2014: More Conferences, More Strategies

  • MACED releases “Strategies for Appalachian Transition,” a 20-page booklet that outlines several tangible strategies ripe for investment, that would warrant tangible economic development results. At the time, MACED determined there was a lack of such tangibles, and sought to fill it with this booklet. The five strategies discussed in the booklet are: Entrepreneurs, Energy Efficiency, Local Foods, Forestry and Investment.
  • Appalachia’s Bright Future 2.0: As a follow-up to the successful conference they hosted the previous year, KFTC brought folks together for a learning and listening experience in eastern Kentucky. They wanted people to see some of the actual just transition that was happening in the region, so the gathering was designed as more of a tour of local businesses and attractions with some panel discussions built in.

2015: Policy Proposals and More Gatherings

  • President Obama’s administration released three proposals that sought to invest more money back into coal communities nationwide: POWER+ Plan, POWER Initiative, Clean Power Plan. These proposals contained special focus on eastern Kentucky and Central Appalachian coalfields. If the proposals were fully implemented, jobs would be created, economic diversification and land remediation would happen, investment would be made in local assets and infrastructure, and coal miners and their families would be better taken care of through shoring up of benefits and pension programs, and much, much more.
  • It’s Good 2 Be Young in the Mountains: A conference organized and attended by young people from the five-state region of Central Appalachia. The conference was filled with art, story-telling, media-making and discussion of ideas about how to make the region’s future brighter, more inclusive and sustainable.

Surely, important work, programs and initiatives have been unintentionally left out of this list – there’s so much that has happened, and that is happening, that it’s difficult to pin it all down. If you know of something that we’ve forgotten, or may not have known about, please tell us in the comments.