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Op-ed: Better alternatives to extraction industry dependence

In the July 5 edition of the Parkersburg News and Sentinel, a piece appeared on the front page of the business section touting the recent report from the U.S. Department of Energy entitled “The Appalachian Energy and Petrochemical Renaissance: An Examination of Economic Progress and Opportunities.” The piece quoted extensively from entities like Shale Crescent USA and the American Chemistry Council and essentially amounted to nothing more than oil and gas industry public relations propaganda. The piece suggested a future for Appalachia that leaves this wonderful region of the country the extractive industry sacrifice zone it has been for far too long. Other, better alternatives exist.

A coalition of 80 different grassroots and non-profit community organizations released a report one day prior to the DOE’s report entitled the “National Economic Transition Platform.” This report was “crafted by Local, Tribal, and Labor Leaders to build sustainable, resilient, and equitable economies for the people and places hit hardest by the changing coal economy.” The report advocates for a national transition program that rests on seven pillars: local leadership, restorative economic development, workforce development and worker health, reclamation, infrastructure, bankruptcy, and coordination and access. You can download the full report at nationaleconomictransition.org.

Other initiatives offer important alternatives as well. An initiative called Reimagine Appalachia has begun with endorsements and contributions from organizations and individuals throughout the four states that make up the Ohio River Valley — Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky. The focus of the initiative is to “reimagine a 21st Century economy for the Ohio Valley that’s good for workers, communities, and the environment.” You can learn more at reimagineappalachia.org. An extensive framework for this movement has been developed and continues to be shaped.

The industry propaganda talks about 100,000 direct and indirect jobs, $28 billion in investments, and an expansion of good old American manufacturing; but how many of those jobs are permanent, how much of that investment will benefit Appalachian communities both short- and long-term, and do the value-added products and other results of that manufacturing actually stay in or around Appalachia? The industry doesn’t want to talk to you about the answers to those questions. The article seems to suggest, without directly stating, that 630,000 manufacturing jobs, or 13 percent of the overall direct jobs market, come from shale development in Northern and Central Appalachia; but it doesn’t define what it means by Northern and Central Appalachia and it doesn’t define what it means by manufacturing. Those are statements worthy of a high-priced industry lawyer or PR firm.

The industry talks a lot about energy, but energy has nothing to do with what they envision for the Ohio River Valley. They’re envisioning a plastics and petrochemical hub that spans the entire river valley, a Cancer Alley II — Cancer Alley being the moniker given to a stretch of the Mississippi River Valley between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, La., known for its high cancer rates tied to plastics and petrochemicals developments and other chemical and fossil fuels industrial developments. For more on the anticipated Appalachian Storage HUB/Petrochemical Complex you can visit OHVEC.org. For a chilling global look at the effects of plastics production, I recommend the documentary film “The Story of Plastics,” which you can get info on how to view at storyofplastic.org. The environmental damage and human rights abuses and health threats from the lifecycle of plastics are almost unfathomable.

It’s time for the people of the Ohio River Valley, West Virginia and all of Appalachia to look past fossil fuels and chemical industry hype and work toward a future of sustainable development and agriculture, renewable energy, maximum energy efficiency, clean water, air and soil, responsible stewardship of resources, and environmental conservation and preservation. It’s time we stop sacrificing our health and well-being to make a few people and entities even more obscenely rich. It’s time we value and bargain with our labor the way industry values and bargains with capital, and that we have a state and federal government writing, restoring and implementing laws, rules and regs to permit this. Keep in mind, these industries don’t work for you; they work for their profit margins, shareholder dividends, executive compensation packages and market shares. They’re not beholden to you, they’re beholden to their bottom lines. We can have a better future in Appalachia, but not by sticking with the industry playbook. Demand more.

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Eric Engle is a Parkersburg resident. He is chairman of Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action, chairman of the WV Sierra Club Chapter Executive Committee and a board of directors member for the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.

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