CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- State Senate President Jeff Kessler on Tuesday kicked off a forum on diversifying West Virginia's economy with a push to create a "future fund" that would set aside tax dollars from the Marcellus Shale natural gas boom for improving education, infrastructure and economic development.
Kessler, D-Marshall, said that West Virginians should not waste any more time before truly preparing for the decline in the state's coal industry.
"Coal has been king in West Virginia for 100 years, but it hasn't taken very good care of its subjects," Kessler said, noting that counties with the largest historic coal production are among West Virginia's poorest communities.
Kessler made his remarks during a keynote speech at the start of a forum called, "A Bright Economic Future for West Virginia," that continues today at the Clay Center in Charleston.
The event is sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy and aims to highlight and foster discussions of how the state can diversify its economy.
Marion County native Jeremy Richardson, a physicist and fellow with UCS, put together the forum as part of a project exploring cultural and economic drivers of coal production in West Virginia. Richardson, who comes from a coal-mining family, is trying to help develop paths for a more environmentally and economically sustainable future.
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," and a view of what "sustainable economic development" could become in the state.
The event this evening 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 the forum's agenda doesn't include specific sessions on coal's impact on global warming or how greenhouse gas reduction policies would affect the industry, climate change's relationship to West Virginia is a major backdrop for the discussions.
In a separate talk at the event, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant also supported more efforts to diversify the state's economy, but also highlighted her participation in a visit to Washington in which West Virginia Democrats complained about the Obama administration's coal policies.