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Meeting to focus on W.Va. economic diversity

Learn about the event here.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia political leaders don't want to talk much about coal's contributions to global warming, so a trio of organizations is changing the subject, with a forum next week aimed at discussing ways to successfully diversify the state's economy.

Promotional materials for the forum, called "A Bright Economic Future for the Mountain State," don't mention climate change or the coal industry's ongoing decline. But those issues and their impact on coalfield communities are really the backdrop for the event, sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, and West Virginia Community Development Hub.

The forum website says the event will be "taking an objective and critical look at opportunities for future economic development.

"The forum seeks to spark an honest, objective, and open discussion that centers on solutions, not problems," the site says. "We will highlight community leaders who are already achieving success in creating new opportunities and a brighter future for us all."

The Sept. 3-4 forum is the brainchild of West Virginia native Jeremy Richardson, a physicist who comes from a family of miners and is studying coal and climate change for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"We didn't develop this forum to talk about climate change," Richardson said this week. "But maybe we can get people to think more broadly about what is possible and get out of the mind-set that coal is all we have here."

Scheduled speakers for the event include Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.; state Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall; and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. The agenda features a variety of speakers from businesses, organized labor, the religious community, nonprofit organizations and educational institutions.

Sessions include a 90-minute discussion of what participants hope West Virginia will look like in 30 years, a focus on workforce training, creation of a "future fund" that would help with diversifying the economy, and a view of what "sustainable economic development" could become in the state.

The event also includes a showing of "Hollow," the interactive documentary film that explores the history, present and future of McDowell County through the eyes of the people who live there. Filmmaker Elaine McMillion will lead a discussion that's scheduled to include several McDowell residents.

While there are no obvious speakers from the state's major environmental advocacy groups, the agenda also doesn't include any of the typical advocates for the coal industry. And the topics don't really include a rundown of the challenges facing the coal industry, mining's impacts on coalfield communities, or the potential economic effects of coal's ongoing decline.

Richardson said he didn't find a lot of appetite for an event that would talk directly about coal's role in climate change and what the state should do about that.

"No one would touch that," he said. "Everyone was a little afraid to get involved in that. We felt like that topic would just be too divisive to have a civil and reasonable discussion about."

Still, a public opinion survey Richardson commissioned earlier this year showed a substantial majority of West Virginians favor increasing taxes on the coal industry to create a long-term fund for economic diversification and community development.

The survey also found broad support for the coal industry, but also a desire among state residents for strong environmental protections such as those mandated by the federal Clean Water Act.

West Virginians who were surveyed were concerned about the impact of environmental rules on industry, but also expressed strong support for increased focus on renewable energy. More than half said that the state should begin to transition to an economy that relies less on coal jobs.

"People are really hungry to have this discussion," Richardson said.

So far, more than 165 people have registered for the event, being held in the 200-seat Walker Theater at the Clay Center in Charleston. Information about attending is available online at http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/what_you_can_do/a-bright-economic-future-for-mountain-state.html.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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