Documentary fuels energy discussion

The documentary “After Coal: What Happens When Fossil Fuels Run Out?” was screened Tuesday night at The State Theatre, followed by a panel discussion on how coal communities can deal with loosing their main economic driver.

The hourlong film, directed by Tom Hansell, offers a look into how towns in South Wales and Appalachia are dealing with the cultural and economic effects of transitioning away from the dwindling coal industry.

Across Appalachia, towns have experienced not only massive job loss, but a cultural crisis because much of their identities have been shaped by the coal culture.

Seamus McGraw, award-winning journalist and author of “The End of Country: Dispatches From the Frack Zone,” said people in the areas identify with the coal culture even though coal production stopped more than 30 years ago. McGraw is from northeastern Pennsylvania in the heart of the anthracite coal region.

“These people culturally identify as miners, but they never worked in the mines,” McGraw said. “I still view myself as the child of coal crackers, but I’m not digging the stuff.”

Elyzabeth Engle, doctoral candidate in rural sociology at Penn State, said the occupational identity of former miners and their families is engrained in the culture, but the skills they have can translate into the renewable energy industry.

Many of the former coal towns in West Virginia are considering or have already constructed wind farms. The technology has been met with apprehension from locals, but the farms continue to move forward.

While people in these areas have seen an increase in renewable energy jobs, the staying power of the technology is unknown. Pennsylvania has opted to enter the gas and wind production industries in order to move away from coal, and Appalachia is about to do the same.

“These are places that are hovering on the edge of a gas boom and wind farms,” McGraw said. “But the question is can we harness that for their benefit or are we going to do what we’ve always done?”

Fossil fuel towns have been treated like colonies on some level. Energy companies move in and take what they came for and after they are done they leave the towns to their own devices, according to McGraw.

The film focuses on this problem and highlights ways that communities can come together through music and art to create safe places for discussion and social growth.

“There are so many wonderful grassroots, community-based sustainable development initiatives in these areas,” Engle said. “And it shows that there are steps that can be taken to engage folks on the local level so their voices are heard. I think the film does a really good job highlighting that.”