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The Resource Curse of Appalachia

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Jason Clark has lived near Amity, Pa., in the southwestern part of the state, since he was born. He likes to call urban Americans “hypocrites.” At 38, he’s the president of the Pork Association in Washington County, which sits at the edge of Appalachia. City dwellers are consumers, as he sees it; they gobble up resources like meat and coal and natural gas without knowing where they come from or thinking much about the toll that rural Americans pay to supply them.

There’s a term for that toll. Economists call it the resource curse, or the paradox of plenty. Since the 1990s, political scientists and development experts have used the resource curse to explain why countries richest in fossil fuels tend to remain poor. The problem, they contend, lies in the toxic impact of large influxes of cash: Easy money displaces more productive economic activity and fosters weak governments.

Typically, scholars apply the term to poorer continents, yet it affects America also, and nowhere more so than Appalachia. Oil was discovered in western Pennsylvania in the 1850s. And for more than a century, coal companies have clear-cut hollows to burrow into the earth below.

Corporations influenced local politicians and owned local businesses. They set the price of bread and the number of hours in a workday. For a time, these companies also supplied jobs and, by extension, built communities as churches and schools grew up around mines. Yet education wasn’t really a focus. For laborers, the best-paid positions were underground. They required high levels of specialized skill best learned on the job.

Over the past several decades, as market forces and dwindling supplies have pushed coal companies into bankruptcy, they’ve abandoned towns, leaving behind the ravages of slag heaps and thousands of miles of streams and rivers polluted by acid mine drainage. Drive along the border between Pennsylvania and West Virginia and you’ll see waterways that are the bright orange of hunters’ vests. Neither the state nor towns can afford to pay the cleanup costs.

Fracking, however, promised to be different. When the natural gas boom arrived in the region more than a decade ago, it came with assurances that natural gas would burn cleaner than coal, releasing only half the amount of carbon into the atmosphere. Its proponents also argued that after a time, its environmental footprint would be so small that it would disappear into the rural landscape. For Appalachia’s residents, who’d experienced generations of mining and drilling on their farms and were well versed in the language of mineral rights, fracking brought with it the possibility of finally profiting off their land by signing lucrative leases to the oil and gas beneath their feet.

In the seven years I’ve spent reporting in southwestern Pennsylvania, I’ve watched the oil and gas industry build influence in Washington County by buying up farm livestock at the 4-H competition at the county fair and placing favorable articles in local papers — paid content that featured “shaleionaires,” a handful of farmers who’ve profited mightily off drilling.

Such corporate tactics can sow discord among neighbors who find themselves winners and losers in a lottery driven by energy markets. With an influx of cash from signing mineral leases, some larger landowners have gotten rich, while neighbors with less land pay the price for oil and gas extraction. These hidden costs range from the expense of car repairs that result from roads ruined by truck traffic, to the more troubling health consequences of living next door to leaking pools of industrial waste — including dying animals and sick children.

Struck by these and other forms of environmental injustice, many rural Americans have found they have nowhere to turn for protection. In Pennsylvania, government agencies and legal protections can do little to help. State environmental investigators, who are underpaid and inadequately trained, often abandon the public sector for more lucrative jobs in oil and gas. Federal agents, hamstrung by budget cuts and now under siege in the Trump administration’s campaign against environmental regulation, don’t have the mandate to hold drillers accountable for shoddy practices.

In Pennsylvania, a band of citizen activists has fought back. Among them are retired coal miners and steelworkers whose activism is rooted in the long history of labor unions in the state. Historically Democrats, most are also socially conservative hunters and fishers. Many were Trump voters who adhere to neither party and resist easy political classification. They view themselves not as environmentalists — a word that many see as carrying a dubious “liberal” agenda — but as conservationists, who believe in the wise use of resources for the benefit of humankind.

Since 2011, I’ve attended community meetings with these activists. At one such gathering, I met Stacey Haney, a single mother and nurse, and an avid hunter whose father, like many of the men in attendance, was a Vietnam combat veteran and an out-of-work steelworker. Ms. Haney, like others, was skeptical of corporate interests but far more suspicious of the federal government and of outsiders coming to Appalachia to wag fingers at poor people for signing mineral leases that helped them hold on to their farms.

Ms. Haney was proud to sign a lease on her small plot of land. She hoped it would earn her enough money to build her dream barn, but the act also had patriotic implications. She believed that as a daughter of a veteran, she had a duty to help keep American soldiers at home, instead of in the Middle East fighting foreign entanglements linked to oil. The promise of American energy independence would keep Americans safe and support an industrial resurgence in the rust belt. For all of these reasons, Ms. Haney was a staunch supporter of fracking.

Then an oil-and-gas operation began atop a hill about a quarter of a mile from her home. The industrial site included a vast open waste pond that leaked and sent noxious gases into the air. After her farm animals and her children developed mysterious illnesses, Ms. Haney grew fearful about potential exposure and abandoned the farm, which had once belonged to her great-grandfather. Ms. Haney became an outspoken activist. She sued the corporation that she believed had sickened her children; then she took on the state.

In 2012, along with a team of lawyers who represented small towns, Ms. Haney challenged a revision to Pennsylvania’s oil and gas law. This law would remove the rights of small towns to determine where drillers could operate. The towns battled it, arguing they had a duty to protect their citizens. To bolster their claim, they relied on an obscure amendment to the Bill of Rights in the Pennsylvania Constitution, the Environmental Rights Amendment, which guaranteed all citizens the right “to clean air and pure water.” The argument for the amendment was based directly on Pennsylvania’s history with coal companies leaving citizens with poisoned air and toxic water. This, the amendment underscored, involved a basic violation of individual rights.

Although on its surface the Environmental Rights Amendment sounded like a “liberal” cause, its basis was essentially conservative: the belief that citizens and communities had the right to govern themselves and could not be steamrollered by large corporations or federal agencies. In a 4-2 decision, the conservative bench of the state Supreme Court found in favor of Ms. Haney’s side. The small towns won.

“It’s not a historical accident that the Pennsylvania Constitution now places citizens’ environmental rights on par with their political rights,” Chief Justice Ronald Castille, a conservative Republican and Vietnam combat veteran, wrote in his landmark decision. Pennsylvania’s long history of resource extraction has given its citizens a sophisticated understanding of what energy really costs.

An abundance of coal, oil and natural gas has been, at best, a mixed blessing for rural Americans. This has helped to turn them against not only the federal government for failing to protect them but also their fellow Americans, whose appetite for consuming energy never seems to slacken.

NY Times

18 Comments on "The Resource Curse of Appalachia"

  1. Shortend on Sat, 9th Jun 2018 10:40 pm 

    We THEY will do ANYTHING to keep BAU going…
    And I mean anything…we have seen nothing yet people.

  2. MASTERMIND on Sat, 9th Jun 2018 11:19 pm 

    Trump is “willing to destroy the world”: George Soros

  3. JuanP on Sat, 9th Jun 2018 11:30 pm 

    MM, The New York Post and Soros? Really? Could you pick two less credible sources? What is wrong with you? Please post your old links again immediately to restore your “credibility”. LOL!

  4. MASTERMIND on Sat, 9th Jun 2018 11:44 pm 


    The New York Post has been in business over 200 years..

  5. MASTERMIND on Sat, 9th Jun 2018 11:47 pm 

    I love you George, but where’s my $oros bucks! I’m at nearly every Antifa protest and I’m forever shilling for open borders, but despite what Alex Jones promised — you ain’t paid me a penny!! Pay up, George!

  6. MASTERMIND on Sun, 10th Jun 2018 12:08 am 

    Study: Fake news may have won Trump the election

  7. MASTERMIND on Sun, 10th Jun 2018 12:25 am 

    Gotta love Soros. He triggers republicans so much.

  8. Makati1 on Sun, 10th Jun 2018 12:26 am 

    MM, “The New York Post has been in business over 200 years..” And your problem with their fake news is…? The NY Post began before the propaganda became so bold and blatant and there were hundreds of INDEPENDENT newspapers in the Us. You do know that almost all of the Us MSM is now owned by SIX people?

    There is no “free” press anymore in America, only propaganda and faux news.

  9. Cloggie on Sun, 10th Jun 2018 1:56 am 

    “I love you George”

    We know that by now, millimind. All you “atheists from Scotland” do love

    “Trump is “willing to destroy the world”: George Soros”

    Translation: DJT is destroying the world we koshers have carefully build up over a century now and we hate it, it’s not fair!!

    [insert sound of stamping feet on the ground here]

    Are you suffering, millimind? A lot? Do you want to talk about it?

  10. Go Speed Racer on Sun, 10th Jun 2018 2:50 am 

    Thank God that Trump is the President Again.

    He made it legal to burn sofa’s in our
    backyards again.

    Doesn’t matter if everybody is on 1/8 acre lots, go ahead and light it up.

    If neighbors don’t like it, they can close
    their windows.

    4 more years! Trump in 2020.

    Also Trump solved global warming.
    He kicked out the cord, on the NASA
    CO2 satellite.

    So now the CO2 emissions
    are good as zero.

  11. Anonymouse1 on Sun, 10th Jun 2018 3:03 am 

    There are quite a few things missing from this Jew York times fluff. Appalachia, may have had lots of coal, at one time, but that never meant the area called ‘Appalachia’ was wealthy, or destined to be. Coal, like all dirty energy, has long been subsidized by the uS regime. Those subsidies, were never earmarked for the ignorant hicks of the region, but for the owners and shareholders of the coal companies. The area was never subject to the Jew York Times, ‘curse of plenty’. It was, in reality, a designated sacrifice zone. Much like areas of the uS being subjected to heavy fraking are currently. Same idea.

    To listen to the morons at the JYT, you would almost think applachina was a mini Saudi Arabia in the making, that didn’t quite make the cut. Sure.

    The uS has long exploited its own people and regions for the benefit of corporations and shareholders. As well as the major urban centers on the east and west coasts, where, not surprisingly, most of the uS elites also tended to make their homes and corporate headquarters. Whatever ‘wealth’ these sacrifice zones enjoyed, was often temporary, or illusory. Once uS corporations exhaust the easy pickings (or w/e they are after), they simply pull up stakes and the region slides back into poverty (again).

    Detroit anyone?

  12. twocats on Sun, 10th Jun 2018 7:49 am 

    Resource curse is related to the fact that large international entities make sure those areas and countries are easily controlled BY ANY MEANS. Countries with oil are much to important to be left to the whims of democracy or the will of those living there – many of which were labelled communist just to make it easier to justify the support for slaughter.

    Appalachia was reliably socialist for decades and it was weeded out.

  13. eugene on Sun, 10th Jun 2018 9:41 am 

    I think the statement “she could build her dream barn” is the reality. We are a greedy people who refuse to face that we are. We get lost in the dream things. A new car, bigger house, new furniture, a new boat and the list is long. We are all playing the game. Trump won on the promise of a return to days gone by which is exactly what got us here. The days gone by are the foundation of today. In the meantime, we’ll rant about who’s to blame which is carefully guided by the nightly news which isn’t really news at all. The news is business and business is selling us what we want to hear. No reality please. Too depressing.

  14. rockman on Sun, 10th Jun 2018 11:38 am 

    There is no such thing as a “resource curse”. But there are such factors as the human nature curse, political corruption and incompetence curse as well as corporate corruption and incompetence curse.

    A good example of resources being managed is Norway IMHO. Unfortunately, there are many examples of resources not being as well managed as along with some being very poorly managed. And examples of economies with few natural resources that have been well managed and poorly managed.

    The same can be said for individuals who have amassed significant personal wealth.

  15. Outcast_Searcher on Sun, 10th Jun 2018 2:47 pm 

    Id the president of the pork council is so put out by his customers, then he needs to get a different job.

  16. kanon on Tue, 12th Jun 2018 6:59 am 

    I have actually never been to Appalachia, but I hear it used to be a very beautiful place. Perhaps the former mountain tops are still high enough to be a little cooler than the lowlands in the summer. This could be another development attraction. It is really a tragedy that it became a designated sacrifice zone.

  17. JuanP on Tue, 12th Jun 2018 7:43 am 

    MM “The New York Post has been in business for over 200 years” And your point is? The fact that you believe their propaganda because they are old only proves how ignorant and thoroughly brainwashed you are. The NYP is nothing more than another Western mainstream propaganda outlet, just like Bloomberg, the NYT, WP, WSJ, and all the other propaganda outlets you also believe. I don’t care what the source of what I am reading is; I care about reality and the truth. I am not going to believe propaganda just because other people do.

  18. JuanP on Tue, 12th Jun 2018 7:51 am 

    Kanon “I have actually never been to Appalachia, but I hear it used to be a very beautiful place.” If you ever get a chance go. It is one of the most beautiful parts of the USA. My wife and I went there for our honeymoon and loved it , and have gone back several times. It is our favorite place in the world. The Blue Ridge Parkway is my favorite road in the world and the Appalachian Trail my favorite hiking trail. Yes, it is overdeveloped like most of the world, but it is still incredibly beautiful. We will be going back this year to do some packrafting. People there are very nice, too,if you treat them well. We’ve always felt at home there.

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