The coal industry, as we know it today in Eastern Kentucky, continues to decline.

After 27 years, CEDAR, Inc., which is a non-profit organization focused on promoting the coal industry through educating students about the industry’s benefits, announced that it has officially shifted its focus away from coal and onto economic development in Appalachia. This announcement was huge news, as the organization was always primarily focused on changing the public’s narrative of the coal industry.

CEDAR formed as an organization in 1993 through the joint efforts of the North Carolina Coal Institute and coal operators and associates of Pikeville in order to provide various academic programs to students. It has offered programs to schools from more than a dozen Eastern Kentucky counties, and the programs were always centered on educating students about coal.

However, it is no secret that the coal industry has seen a steady decline since 2010, with a massive decline in recent years. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, U.S. coal production totaled 706 million short tons in 2019, its lowest level since 1978, and EIA has predicted a 29 percent decline in U.S. coal production by the end of 2020.

In Kentucky, the state’s coal severance receipts have plummeted. In July this year, according to the Kentucky Office of the State Budget Director, the state collected just over $3.2 million in coal severance taxes, a 37 percent decline from the $5.1 million seen in July 2019. This decline in coal production finally caused the state’s coal education funds to dry up, which was CEDAR’s primary source of funding.

CEDAR decided to collaborate with the non-profit organization Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) and educate students on economic development in Appalachia, while using their same programming structure. While the organization has not forgotten its roots with the coal industry, the programs themselves have shifted in focus. Instead of boosting the coal industry as a possible economic opportunity, students are being encouraged to promote economic development by creating ideas for new opportunities in the region.

CEDAR’s Coal Study Unit Program, which serves 12 Eastern Kentucky counties, has been renamed to “Future of Work Teacher Study Unit Program.” The program will allow teachers from public or private K-12 schools across these counties to create, develop and implement their own study unit. This unit of study will work to address at least one of the seven pillars of the SOAR blueprint, instead of being focused on coal.

CEDAR’s Coal Fair Program has now become the “Future of Work Student Fair Program.” Students will create projects out of the “Future of Work Teacher Study Unit Program” that will be connected to at least one of SOAR’s seven pillars, and those students will be eligible to enter the fair.

CEDAR’s Entrepreneurial Coal Lands Redevelopment Program, which serves 21 Eastern Kentucky counties, will now include high school teams creating a business idea to either solve a problem or take advantage of an opportunity that will benefit their community. They can choose either a previously mined site or a coal camp site to repurpose or revitalize by using it as the location for their new business.

CEDAR President John Justice told Appalachian Newspapers that he “hopes that some of the students will be motivated and will become innovators and entrepreneurs.”

“If not, they’ll at least have a good understanding and working knowledge of business and how business works, how economic development works and how you take new ideas and make them into reality,” he said.

While it is never easy to move beyond an industry that has defined our region for decades, it is encouraging for nonprofit organizations like CEDAR to become more invested in helping shape our region for the better. We hope more students will become encouraged to create a brighter future for Appalachia through these new programs.

This change for CEDAR marks a significant moment in the saga of the coal industry in Eastern Kentucky. Coal is no longer providing the state with enough revenue to sustain its statewide coal education funds, and it is no longer being seen as a viable economic opportunity for our region.

Therefore, we must come to terms with this reality. If we as Appalachians are to recover from this ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and recover from the economic downturn that the coal industry’s decline has caused in the past decade, it’s crucial that we adapt to these ever-changing times and focus on reshaping our region beyond coal.

We must provide support for the existing coal industry and continue to support what lasts as long as it lasts. There will always be a need for coal, but that need will certainly be less than what it has been in the past.

Like CEDAR, we must focus on other opportunities for economic development that are available in our region, rather than holding our breath and waiting for the coal industry to bounce back. We must adapt to the present, shift our focus to the horizon and keep moving forward.

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