On August 31, the Center for Coalfield Justice hosted a virtual panel discussion with Mike Belding, Greene County Commissioner, and Sean o’Leary, a senior researcher at the Ohio River Valley Institute. The discussion was hosted by Veronica Coptis, the executive director at the Center for Coalfield Justice, and was centered around two videos about the fossil fuel industry’s impact on the economy and climate of rural areas.
The first video, “The Other Side of the Hill”, is a documentary that explores climate change in rural Oregon and how community leaders there are working together to fight it. According to the documentary’s website, the film is meant to show how different factions can come together around an important issue.
The second video, “Common Sense, Common Ground- Powering Past Coal”, is a short film created by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Powering Past Coal Alliance that shows how the economy in Centralia, Wisconsin adjusted after the coal plant there began the process of closing.
In addition to discussing the videos, the panel took questions from the audience. One audience member raised an issue with Pennsylvania’s current involvement in renewable energy industries, saying that Pennsylvania is trailing behind other states in those industries. According to Belding, Greene County is working to solve that problem through several programs, including an initiative to use waste coal slurry to power a carbon-negative power plant.
“When this technology is matured and proven economical, Greene County has a lot of coal refuse to contribute to this clean energy producing technology. We get cleaner energy and clean up the remains left behind from the traditional coal industry,” Belding said in a follow-up email after the event. “I think we’ll find affordable technology that allows Greene County to remain an energy producer, even as carbon and pollution regulations get more strict. Solar and wind can play a part in diversifying energy sourcing, but we also need to increase efficiency and longevity of those power sources, as well.”
Another audience member said that she felt inspired by how the communities in the videos worked together to combat the issue and didn’t let differences between them ruin the work. Belding sees divisiveness as an issue in Greene County, and he said that personal and political differences are slowing work on problems facing the county. After the event, he said that the county has experienced pushback against projects that it wants to fund,and he thinks that people need to move past these differences and work together.
“I’m fairly tired of the pettiness of people and have just moved beyond them. We maneuver around obstacles now, and use our energy and resources to better our county and communities, not to fight the entrenched political nemesis,” Belding said. “The political parties hold no ‘power.’ Our economic successes in the future is not a political issue, it’s a survival issue for our communities and county. The focus must be on increased opportunity for entrepreneurs, businesses, industry and enticing residents to Greene County with amenities, employment and an enjoyable place to live, work and play.”
Coptis says that the public reaction to issues like fighting climate change and working towards economic diversity has changed over the course of her decade advocating these issues in Greene County. According to her, it would have been unlikely for a county commissioner to be willing to attend the panel discussion until recently, and she thinks that the change in County leadership has increased people’s interest in solving those problems. According to her, the reality of the local perception of climate change and the fossil fuel industries is different from the national narrative.
“I think that’s just reflective that the national narrative that like everyone doesn’t want to see any fossil fuel industry go away is pretty shallow,” she said. “It’s much more complex than that on the ground, and what people’s deep concerns are is that they will be able to have access to good-paying jobs so that they will be able to support their families.”
All of the panelists emphasized the importance of local organizing and community organizing to solve this issue. During the discussion, Belding said that organizers don’t have the restrictions that the government does, and he drew attention to some of the local initiatives that are being started in Greene County, including the work done by the Greene County Economic Diversity Steering Committee. To him, it’s up to the people to get involved.
“The political parties hold no ‘’power’. It’s up to individuals to cordially participate in activities and initiatives that will positively affect our communities, businesses, opportunities for tourism and diversification of our economic drivers,” he said.
Coptis said that she hopes that the audience was able to learn from the videos and discussion and apply it towards creating solutions in Greene County.
“We also live in a region that is seeing pretty severe economic fits for the current industries that are operating, and I am hoping that people can see inspiration from practices and themes that exist in other places and bring that to on the ground planning in our own communities,” she said.
The full discussion can be viewed on the Center For Coalfield Justice’s Facebook page.