by Brian Anderson, PhD.
NETL is truly a national laboratory and the only Department of Energy Laboratory dedicated to fossil energy research. We have critical ongoing energy projects underway in nearly every state. But, we are keenly aware of our obligation and potential to assist in the continued workforce and economic evolution of our original home territory – the coal fields, oil and gas fields, factories, classrooms, and businesses of Appalachia.
That’s why we welcomed a recent opportunity to have high level conversations with leadership of the highly successful and historic Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) to explore shared goals and identify opportunities to work together to foster improvements to the Appalachian region.
ARC Federal Co-Chair Tim Thomas brought key members of his staff to NETL’s Morgantown site to learn first-hand about our research with a specific focus on our energy and advanced manufacturing initiatives and our ongoing programs that support science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). These are NETL research and development areas that foster the kind of innovation and entrepreneurship that can help bolster economic and workforce development in the Appalachian region.
Appalachia is a 205,000-square-mile region that follows the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from southern New York to northern Mississippi. It includes all of West Virginia and parts of 12 other states: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Forty-two percent of the region's population is rural, compared with 20 percent of the national population.
The region's economy, once highly dependent on mining, forestry, agriculture, chemical industries, and heavy industry, has become more diversified and now includes manufacturing and professional service industries. According to ARC, Appalachia has come a long way in the past five decades: its poverty rate, 31 percent in 1960, was 16.7 percent over the 2012-2016 period. The number of high-poverty counties in the region declined from 295 in 1960 to 93 over the 2012-2016 period.
More than 100 years ago, the forerunner of today’s NETL was created to research and develop safer ways to mine coal, but the mission grew and expanded to create technologies and processes that created new industries, jobs and progress, first right here in Appalachia, but eventually everywhere in America where fossil energy resources are produced and used to power homes, factories, schools and hospitals. Today, NETL’s work touches many energy research issues from safer ways to tap massive natural gas plays and monitor for potential methane leaks to cleaner ways to burn coal and safely inject methane deep underground.
Reaching out to ARC to work together to expand upon development progress is a logical step for the Laboratory. Our Regional Workforce Initiative, which organized the ARC visit, has a mission to create a platform for regional stakeholders to engage the Laboratory and other federal agencies in collaborative economic and workforce development efforts that involve NETL technology research, development, commercialization and deployment.
Our first step with ARC opened the door for further discussion and educated our leadership and ARC officials about our complementary expertise and potential. It is a partnership we look forward to exploring to further the mission of diversifying and elevating the communities of Appalachia through technology development and deployment and educational support for young people pursuing careers in STEM.
As Henry Ford once observed, “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”