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Protecting Workers and Communities During the Clean Energy Transition

Peter Lehner's picture

I am the Executive Director of NRDC. The position is my second at NRDC. Beginning in 1994, I led the Clean Water Program for five years, before leaving in 1999 to serve as the head of the...

  • Member since 2018
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  • Feb 11, 2015

fossil fuel transition and worker protection

When I worked at the New York Attorney General’s Office, we sued coal-fired power plants because their air pollution was making people sick. But in some towns, I saw that the reliance on coal really had people in a bind. The coal plant was making them sick, but it was also a major tax generator for the town. If the plant closed, the town might have to lay off teachers and cops, in addition to losing the plant jobs.

In some West Virginia and Kentucky counties, the coal industry accounts for up to 40 percent of the workforce. Yet these coal-dependent counties also have some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the region. As we shift to cleaner sources of energy, we need to help communities make the transition successfully. That’s why President Obama’s proposal, as part of his 2016 budget, to include resources for coal miners and other communities affected by the clean energy transition is so important.

The plan would provide $55 million for programs to help communities diversify their economies, attract new investment, provide job training and create new jobs. That includes $20 million specifically for workers displaced from coal mines and coal-fired power plants, and $25 million for the Appalachian Regional Commission, an agency that promotes economic growth in Appalachia.

The budget also includes legislative reforms to strengthen pension and health care plans for retired miners and their families. This is a big issue for people. In upstate New York, everyone knew GE chemical plants had been polluting the Hudson River for decades. Yet during the legal battle to hold GE responsible for the cleanup, many in local communities opposed the effort, for fear it would affect their retirement. Tens of thousands of them were living on GE pensions.

The concerns of mining communities and others potentially affected by the clean energy transition are very real and need to be addressed. As part of the BlueGreen Alliance, NRDC has been working with union leaders to find ways to meet the needs of workers and communities most affected by the shift to a clean energy system. This means job training, economic development programs, investments in health and retirement security, and support for clean energy projects, including building climate-resilient infrastructure, within affected communities.

By providing key resources for communities at risk, the President’s proposed budget would help ensure that the transition to healthier, cleaner sources of energy is successful–and that everyone can be a part of the clean energy future.

Now the ball is in Congress’s court. Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell, who expresses concern for Kentucky coal communities, can work with the president to help those communities invest in their future. Or they can continue to treat them as hostages in their battle to block climate action. Standing in the way of a cleaner, healthier, more secure energy future won’t do those communities–or the climate–any good at all.

Photo Credit: Energy Transition and Protecting People/shutterstock


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