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Environmental remediation and infrastructure policies offer crucial opportunities for fossil fuel communities in transition

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EDF's energy experts discuss how to accelerate the transition to a clean, low-carbon energy economy. Guided by science and economics, EDF tackles urgent threats with practical solutions. Founded...

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By Jake Higdon

This second report in a joint research series by Environmental Defense Fund and Resources for the Future examines U.S. federal environmental remediation and infrastructure policies that can create jobs and restore communities that have been historically reliant on fossil fuels. Daniel Raimi of RFF authored the report described in this blog post. All views expressed here are EDF’s.

When a fossil fuel plant or mine shuts down, jobs and economic prosperity are lost — but often, the pollution stays. Communities across the U.S. reliant on fossil fuels — and those located near them — have dealt with the dangerous air and water pollution that abandoned oil and gas wells, coal mines and coal-powered plants can leave behind. In Montana, for example, residents in the small town of Belt were surprised to discover dissolved aluminum in their local creek that was 144 times the surface water quality standard; it was coming from an abandoned coal mine upstream.

This is just one example of a massive problem: There are millions of sites in the US in need of environmental remediation, and there will be many more as the US transitions to a clean economy in the coming years.

Furthermore, the closure of a local power plant, mine or other high-carbon industry can result in a loss of government revenue that keeps crucial infrastructure that communities rely on, like roads and clean water, safe and intact. And both consequences of this loss — pollution and aging infrastructure — further worsen the potential for new economic opportunities that can revitalize a town.

This next report in our research series on fairness for fossil fuel workers and communities aims to give federal policymakers an understanding of how environmental remediation and infrastructure policies can support communities affected by the transition to a clean economy. Policymakers can also harness some of these policies to immediately create jobs in communities hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Below, we summarize Raimi’s key observations from a review of the largest existing federal programs focused on environmental remediation and infrastructure.

Key Findings on Environmental Remediation Policies

First and foremost, federal environmental remediation programs, such as Superfund, Brownfields and oil and gas restoration programs, have a history of cleaning up harmful pollution sites, creating a healthier environment that can give communities the opportunity to thrive. For fossil fuel communities in transition, these programs bring the added benefits of creating near-term job opportunities and restoring sites to economic use where jobs and economic prosperity have been lost:

  • The federal government already plays a large role in addressing polluted sites across the US. In many cases, remediation needs are found in and around regions that have been historically dependent on coal, oil and natural gas production, offering the potential for new investment to support fossil fuel workers and communities. 
  • There is strong evidence that remediation projects increase local employment in the short-term, but it is not clear whether those employment benefits continue after a site has been remediated or restored. It is also unclear whether remediation projects primarily support workers in affected communities or workers from other locations. More research on the long-term employment effects of environmental remediation projects would be valuable.
  • Most evidence suggests that remediating polluted sites increases local property values. This could particularly benefit fossil fuel communities and environmental justice communities, which may experience pollution at greater rates than the broader population.
  • Some evidence suggests that environmental remediation projects may disproportionately occur in white communities, and that remediation programs could lead to “environmental gentrification” (when pollution clean up increases local property values and attracts wealthier residents to a previously polluted or disenfranchised neighborhood). This highlights the importance of considering equity and justice in the design and implementation of environmental remediation policies.

Key Findings on Infrastructure Policies

Infrastructure programs for highways, public transport, and clean water also have the potential to support employment and economic growth in communities heavily dependent on fossil fossils:

  • Transportation infrastructure projects create local construction and related jobs, and they can also induce longer-term economic development by making transportation easier and cheaper. Improving transportation networks in rural energy communities can enhance their physical access to markets, providing a stronger foundation for future economic growth.
  • Affordable access to clean water is essential for any community. If fossil fuel communities experience declining tax revenue and/or population, it may become difficult for local governments to finance water system maintenance and upgrades. In addition, these communities may be at greater risk due to the legacy of pollution that sometimes accompanies fossil fuel extraction, processing and combustion.
  • The design, implementation, and enforcement of infrastructure policies will shape whether, and to what extent, future infrastructure spending reduces or exacerbates historical inequities. Low income and communities of color have experienced environmental injustices often related to the siting, maintenance or administration of public infrastructure.
  •  It’s also important to note: Economists have debated whether infrastructure investment increases overall economic activity or simply redistributes that activity. While the former outcome is clearly preferable across society, the latter may also be valuable in the context of moving to a clean economy, if new infrastructure serves communities negatively affected by a shift away from fossil energy.

What’s next?

Environmental remediation and infrastructure policies can offer crucial opportunities for fossil fuel dependent communities and regions in addition to cleaner air and water, including near-term jobs, increased property values and longer-term economic growth. The design and implementation of these programs must be designed to lead to equitable and just outcomes.

Beyond environmental remediation and infrastructure needs, there are plenty of other challenges these communities face in the transition to a clean economy that may warrant federal policy support. This is our second report exploring approaches for ensuring fairness for fossil fuel workers and communities: the first, on federal economic development policies, was released last month. Over the coming months, we will publish additional reports, blogs and materials in this series to address other key policy mechanisms, including investments in workforce development programs, labor standards and public benefits, such as unemployment compensation and health care.

Read the full environmental remediation and infrastructure report here.

Learn more about the full series on ensuring fairness for fossil fuel workers and communities here.

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