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New research series: Ensuring fairness for workers and communities in the transition to a clean economy

By Derek Walker

EDF and Resources for the Future (RFF) partner on a new research series to inform policymaking on fairness for fossil fuel workers and communities in transition.

Coal burning plant in Conesville, Ohio.

Coal burning plant in Conesville, Ohio.

The shockwaves from the COVID-19 pandemic continue to reverberate across the United States, with tens of millions unemployed and workers in every sector in need of support. The energy sector is reeling from the impact — especially the many workers and communities living in coal-dominated regions already grappling with job loss.

In Northeast Wyoming, the Powder River Basin region experienced the largest round of coal mine layoffs in years. In West Virginia, Longview Power — cited as the most efficient coal-fired power plant in the country — filed for bankruptcy. And in Somerset County, Pennsylvania a local coal mine went “indefinitely idle” and laid off 100 workers. These are just a few examples from this spring that reveal how the steep drop in energy demand, largely a result of shutdowns to contain the spread of COVID-19, exacerbated loss in the coal industry. But they don’t capture the whole story.

The loss of these coal jobs will cause a ripple effect beyond the workers: these families will see a drop in income, making it harder to make ends meet, and may also lose health care and other critical benefits. Surrounding businesses — from restaurants to gas stations — will see a drop in customers and the communities and towns dependent on taxes from the coal industry for building roads and schools face an uncertain future too.

But well before the coronavirus outbreak, coal-dependent regions were already facing chronic job loss, public health crises, and other hardships. The rise of cheaper energy alternatives, including the dramatically improving costs of wind and solar power, has been steadily moving the needle toward a low-carbon economy in the US.

For years, many coal communities anticipated the gradual decline in jobs and revenue; few were prepared for the free fall from coronavirus.

As policymakers consider the best way to get the economy going again, hard-hit energy communities can be crucial workers in the clean economy of the future. Fortunately, implementing science-based policies that can get us on a safer path to a clean economy and avert the worst impacts of climate change can go hand-in-hand with generating well-paying jobs and economic security. By making fairness for workers and communities a primary goal, policymakers can ensure that communities where the economy is heavily dependent on the production, transformation, and use of fossil fuels are not only protected in this transition – but prepared to play a central role.

Introducing a New Research Series

As the US accelerates the shift to a low-carbon economy, all forms of climate, environmental, and energy injustice should be dismantled – and that includes tackling the disproportionate burdens working people may face as economic opportunities shift. These principles have been brought together by labor groups, the environmental community, and policymakers to varying degrees over the years in the concept of “just transition.” EDF and Resources for the Future (RFF) are partnering to analyze policies in one strand of this greatly needed area of solutions: addressing the needs of fossil fuel workers and communities in this transition. 

While labor groups have been discussing fairness policies for fossil fuel workers for quite some time, conversations in the policy community are just starting to gain traction: the Just Transition Fund and numerous groups across coal communities recently released the National Economic Transition Platform to support coal communities facing crisis. And the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of labor unions and environmental organizations, released its Solidarity for Climate Action platform in 2019, where it outlines the principle of “Fairness for Workers and Communities” to address the needs of working people affected by the transition. These platforms provide a critical policy framework for economic transition.

At the same time, in the broader US policymaking and advocacy arena, there is limited understanding of the existing policies and programs designed to deliver on this promise – and how effective they have actually been. To help fill that gap and arm policymakers and advocates with the tools they need, EDF and RFF are conducting a systematic review of policy models and mechanisms that can support workers and communities in regions where fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas production and/or consumption – have been a leading employer and driver of prosperity. These reports will be released throughout fall 2020 and will cover the following key policy topics: economic development; energy, environment, and infrastructure; workforce development; and public benefits. These will culminate in a final synthesis report and be accompanied by additional domestic case studies and international policy analyses.

To be clear: this series does not intend to suggest that the solution is matching every fossil fuel worker with a clean energy job. The reality is much more complicated. Preparing these workers for job opportunities in clean energy, efficiency, and manufacturing – or in other viable industries that may be a better fit – is just one part of the solution. The insights drawn from this series will address many crucial aspects of ensuring fairness for workers and communities that may be overlooked – from providing financial support for local businesses to worker benefits like reliable pensions and health protections.

Why this Research Matters Now and Beyond COVID-19

Although this series reviews policies that were implemented prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of this crisis on the energy sector make these findings even more relevant, as shown by the three coal communities in Wyoming, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. To understand why that is, policymakers must factor in the pandemic within the larger trajectory for energy growth in the US:

  • Coal: Coal mining jobs have declined by two-thirds since 1985, and hundreds of heavily-polluting coal-fired power plants have closed in the last decade, out-competed by cheaper renewables and natural gas in the power sector. US coal power generation is expected to plunge another 25 percent in 2020, according to the EIA.
Coal mining jobs

Coal mining jobs have declined by two-thirds since 1985. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

  • Oil & Gas: Even before the pandemic, investors were pushing oil and gas companies to rethink their business models and set net-zero emissions targets. After experiencing a price free-fall in 2020, some analysts predict that peak oil consumption may come sooner than expected.
  • Clean Energy: Conversely, the clean energy industry has moved well ahead of total U.S. employment growth over the last five years, adding jobs 70 percent faster than the overall economy. Like other energy sectors, clean energy has experienced acute job loss from COVID-19, but unlike the others, it was poised to expand in the long-run and become an integral part of the low-carbon economy that scientists agree is necessary to avoid costly climate impacts.

Regardless of how transition and economic redevelopment looks in different regions, a fully decarbonized economy must deliver well-paying, family-sustaining union jobs that propel us toward a clean future. This research can give policymakers the insights they need to ensure that fossil fuel workers and their communities, who have powered our country for decades, are fully prepared to build a stronger and more equitable 21st century clean economy.

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