For more than a century, out-of-state owners have used West Virginia as a colony, bleeding away mineral wealth, paying a pittance in local taxes, and leaving poverty behind when they depart.
McDowell County is a dismal example: A half-century ago, when it was a bonanza for the coal industry, it boomed with nearly 100,000 population. But coal faded and McDowell shriveled to barely above 20,000. It ranks at the bottom of the "misery index," with worst poverty, health, unemployment, addiction, life expectancy and other evils. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Chris Hedges calls McDowell a "sacrifice zone" -- exploited by industry, then discarded.
It's a shame that West Virginia never had a "future fund" requiring the coal industry to set aside billions in a trust to generate interest for the looted colony. Think of the blessings this state could enjoy if such a financial cushion had grown during the past century.
But coal operators always wielded enormous political power in West Virginia, and probably would have killed any proposed future fund. For decades, they prevented collection of severance taxes from coal production (and helped wreck former Gov. William Marland when he first pursued them).
Now -- hurrah -- legislators are pondering a future fund for the Marcellus Shale gas boom, to reap state benefits as the drilling surge snowballs. Go for it, we say. This strategy could assure lasting security for coming generations.
Leaders say it's too late to tap coal, because Appalachian mining slowly is dying as thick seams are depleted and lower-cost fuels grab markets.
"We may have missed the boat on coal, frankly," state Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, told reporter David Gutman. "The opportunities when it was most plentiful, and easiest to get to, and had the greatest demand -- it may have reached its zenith, unfortunately."
Kessler led a delegation of 19 lawmakers, plus other concerned West Virginians, to study North Dakota's "Legacy Fund" that has accumulated $1.3 billion from mineral extractors since it was enacted in 2011.
Early attempts in North Dakota flopped, either because they let legislators siphon the reserves to meet shortages, or because they set collections from industries too high. But now North Dakota has a workable system.
West Virginia likewise should adopt this system. We wish it could tap what's left of coal, as well as gas and oil. We wish it could be established by Legislature action, instead of requiring a constitutional amendment. We agree with Sen. Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, who said:"West Virginia has been blessed with rich natural resources, and to let all that wealth ... be trucked out or piped out of the state without leaving a legacy behind for our children or grandchildren would be a shame."