The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in partnership with West Virginia University, has received a $349,999 from the Appalachian Regional Commission and the U.S. Economic Development Administration to study the consequences of falling coal demand on the Appalachian region.
"This represents a significant opportunity to draw upon the economic development expertise of the university to address a pressing challenge," said Matt Murray, director of the Baker Center and associate director of the Boyd Center. "Partnering with West Virginia University adds to the team's capabilities and places the project in the center of coal country."
Randall Jackson, director of the Regional Research Institute for WVU, said the project is perfectly aligned with the land-grant mission of both universities.
"Our group includes individuals who have devoted their careers to understanding industrial economic systems, energy policy, transportation and human capital."
John Deskins, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at WVU and a UT graduate, said the research will be the first to establish the complete economic impact on coal's decline across Appalachian communities.
"Currently data exist that simply report the losses in direct coal employment across Appalachia. However, there is no existing research that also documents the full economic effect of coal's decline on communities across Appalachia given a community’s broader economic context, and when considering losses from businesses that are linked to coal through supplier connections and impacts associated with losses at coal-fired power plants," he said. "Our work will be critical in properly directing any economic redevelopment efforts in coming years in light of coal's decline."
The grant was one of 42 awards totaling nearly $28 million from the Obama administration's Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) initiative to stimulate economic growth and opportunity in communities that have historically relied on the coal industry.
This year, the POWER initiative has invested $66.3 million in 71 projects to diversify local and regional economies by retraining coal industry workers in 15 states for jobs in agriculture, technology, entrepreneurship, manufacturing and other industries.
"These federal investments will enable Appalachia's coal-impacted communities to continue their work developing innovative paths towards economic resilience," said Earl F. Gohl, federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission. "They will directly support the region's emerging industries, which are making Appalachia America's next great investment opportunity."
The UT and WVU research project also will look at trends in coal production, transportation and coal-based power generation to determine how the coal industry downturn might impact freight rail, barge and truck transportation.
"Some regions of Appalachia are now facing depression-level economic conditions as the demand for coal wanes, and economic conditions can be expected to deteriorate further," Murray said. "We hope that our work allows the people and coal regions of Appalachia to more quickly adapt to the changing economic climate."