Energy & Environment

An eastern Kentucky nonprofit that has long promoted coal to school kids is now promoting innovation and entrepreneurship instead. 

Pikeville-based CEDAR Inc. was founded in 1993 with the purpose of “improving the image of the Coal Industry.” It did this through programs like the annual Coal Fair and a coal education curriculum provided to qualifying teachers in 12 eastern Kentucky counties. Now, students will be encouraged to develop plans for their own businesses, particularly on long-abandoned coal mines. 

“The industry started in 2010 a nosedive and never really corrected, it just kept getting steeper,” said CEDAR president John Justice (no relation to coal baron and West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice). “And so we knew that we were going to need to change course, or we were going to become like the dinosaurs: extinct.”

CEDAR’s curriculum shift was first reported in the Appalachian News-Express newspaper. 

The majority of CEDAR’s funding has traditionally come from the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet through a tax paid by coal producers. But as coal production has plummeted, so too has the amount of severance tax collected. The Kentucky Office of State Budget Director estimates that severance tax will bring in just $55 million in 2020, down from $92 million last year. 

With its new curriculum, CEDAR has earned pledges and contributions from Shaping Our Appalachian Region, Kentucky Power, Community Trust Bank, and the North Carolina Coal Institute. The programming will center on SOAR’s blueprint for a new Appalachia, Justice said, including healthy communities, tourism, and industrial development. 

“Our programs still have a place for coal,” Justice said. “We don’t want to ever forget coal; our region is what it is because of coal. We encourage students to come up with new ways to mine coal, burn coal, and use mine land, with the hopes that some day the industry could restart under different conditions.”

CEDAR ran into controversy in 2011 for distributing education materials that denied climate science and downplayed the environmental harms of surface coal mining. 

Appalachia earned the moniker “Trump Country” around the 2016 election when then-candidate Donald Trump promised to bring back coal jobs to struggling eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia coal counties. But no such renaissance arrived. 

According to the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, the state’s coal production has declined from about 30 million tons in 2013 to about 500,000 tons in June of 2020. Similarly, coal employment in Kentucky’s eastern coalfields has declined from a peak of about 15,000 in 2008 to just 2,256 in June.

At the same time, support for a transition from coal has been growing in Appalachia. In West Virginia, lawmakers for the first time considered legislation providing for a just transition for communities that have relied on coal, and economic and environmental advocacy groups have hammered out policy agendas to help the region diversify. 

“It makes me feel sad about losing the industry part within our program,” said Justice, who worked in coal sales and marketing before joining CEDAR. “But it makes me very hopeful for our region that our new programming will be able to be used in a positive way to hopefully develop our future entrepreneurs.” 

Between 1993 and 2019, CEDAR programming reached about 102,000 students and awarded $27,311 in cash prizes.

Sydney Boles is the ReSource reporter covering the economic transition in the heart of Appalachia’s coal country.