The Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research (VCCER), a State of Virginia center housed at Virginia Tech, has an almost forty year history analyzing the feasibility, economic, sustainability, safety, and environmental impact of Virginian and Appalachian coal production. In addition to yearly support from the State of Virginia legislature, VCCER itself has stayed viable by being able to work with a range of stakeholders. To this point, its current sponsors range from the US Environmental Protection Agency to the Patriot Coal Corporation.
Thus, in 2009, when a group of mine companies was looking to move beyond consultant white papers to base their environmental and economic plans on independent, peer-reviewed science, the VCCER was offered as a top choice as having the capacity and the kind of middle-of-the-road relationships to pave the way for the production of more science in Appalachia on the environmental and social considerations of energy production. Companies could only change practice based on scientific research, and, enough of that looking holistically at a range of economic, social, environmental issues that were region-specific was not being produced
As a result of these concerns, a number of meetings and strategic sessions were held in 2009 and 2010, with participation of the major Appalachian coal producers, coal associations and essential coal infrastructure companies. It was decided an independent research program, involving the major research universities in the Appalachian Region, would be created to investigate the impacts of energy production in the region. The Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research at Virginia Tech was tasked to lead and develop the initiative to ensure transparency, independence, and broad involvement. Since the initial partners were involved primarily in coal mining, that was determined to be the primary focus at the beginning of the project.
A vision statement was created and the participating companies were asked to decide on funding and level of support. The sustainability of such an initiative required multi-year commitment and financial support, and the ARIES industrial affiliates agreed to that commitment. Industrial Affiliate Partners committed to fund ARIES with a grant of $15 million over the first five years and a research strategy was chartered and approved. The formation of ARIES was announced on March 31, 2011. It received immediate support, including endorsement by the then governors of five Appalachian states (see here).
At its formation, the ARIES sponsoring companies were: Alpha Natural Resources, International Coal Group, Massey Energy, Natural Resource Partners, TECO Coal Corporation, Patriot Coal Corporation, Cliffs Natural Resources, Mepco, CSX Corporation and Norfolk Southern.
The researchers of ARIES represent Virginia Tech, West Virginia University, Marshall University, University of Kentucky, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, University of Pittsburgh, the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine, and Consultants in Epidemiology and Occupational Health (which includes faculty from Georgetown University and Johns Hopkins University). Recent additions include researchers from St. Francis University in Pennsylvania.
Additionally, ARIES embraces a new paradigm for research:
- Funded and supported by industrial and other affiliates but directed solely by researchers
- Independent research conducted at universities
- Focused on wide dissemination of results and peer-reviewed publications
- Realistic timeframes for research and reporting–science given the time to develop
Since 2011, ARIES researchers have produced over 90 peer-reviewed publications, in addition to numerous presentations at conferences and public meetings. The research has involved over 90 undergraduate and graduate student researchers, as well as up to 60 faculty and research associates.