As the US Pursues Clean Energy and the Climate Goals of the Paris Agreement, Communities Dependent on the Fossil Fuel Economy Look for a Just Transition

A new report identifies areas from Appalachia to Alaska that will need help to keep their employment, wages and tax bases from falling steeply as coal, oil and gas are phased out.

Long time coal miner Billy Griffith pauses while working at a coal prep plant on May 19, 2017 outside the city of Welch, West Virginia. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Long time coal miner Billy Griffith pauses while working at a coal prep plant on May 19, 2017 outside the city of Welch, West Virginia. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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Perhaps the proudest achievement of Michael Kourianos’ first term as mayor of Price, Utah was helping to make the local university hub the state’s first to run entirely on clean energy. It’s a curious position for the son, brother and grandchild of coal miners who’s worked in local coal-fired power plants for 42 years.

Kourianos sees big changes on the horizon brought by shifts in world energy markets and customer demands, as well as in politics. The mines and plants that powered a bustling economy here in Carbon County and neighboring Emery County for generations are gone or winding down, and Kourianos is hoping to win reelection so he can keep stoking the entrepreneurial energy and partnerships that are moving his community forward.

“That freight train is coming at us,” he said. “You look at all the other communities that were around during the early times of coal, they’re not around.

“That’s my fear,” he said. “That’s my driving force.”

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New research from Resources for the Future points out that hundreds of areas like central Utah are facing painful hardships because of the clean-energy transformation that will be necessary if the United States hopes to reach the Paris agreement’s goals to slow climate change. Lost jobs and wages, a shrinking population and an erosion of the tax base that supports roads, schools and community services—they’re all costs of the economic shift that will be paid by those whose hard work fueled American prosperity for so long. 

“If we can address those challenges by helping communities diversify, helping people find new economic growth drivers and new economic opportunities, that might lessen some of the opposition to moving forward with the ambitious climate policy that we need,” said the report’s author, Daniel Raimi, who is also a lecturer at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.

Meeting the Paris agreement’s target of keeping global temperature rise “well below 2 degrees C” by the end of the century means Americans must burn 90 percent less coal over the next two decades and half as much oil and natural gas, Raimi said.

And less fossil fuel use will also affect employment, public finances and economic development region-by-region, according to Raimi. In 50 of the nation’s 3,006 counties, 25 percent or more of all wages are tied to fossil fuel energy, he notes. In 16 counties, 25 percent or more of their total jobs are related to fossil energy.

Snapshot: Fossil Energy Workforce

Meanwhile, there are 178 counties where jobs in fossil energy extraction, power-plant operation and support industries account for 5 percent or more of the jobs and 291 counties where fossil energy accounts for 5 percent or more of wages.

“My hope is that policymakers will really start to plan for a clean energy future, because that’s what we as a society need,” he says. “And the longer we put off planning in the communities that are going to be affected, the harder it’s going to be for those communities to succeed in the future.”

Increasing Focus on Fairness in Climate Action

The focus on what’s often called a “just transition” is increasingly part of the climate action agenda for advocates and government. The Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and the World Resources Institute are among the environmental advocacy organizations that are promoting the idea.

Eighty coal-state groups have been pushing for help with the transition since before President Joe Biden took office. In January, some of them stepped up their pressure, when 13  organizations from West Virginia to the Navajo Nation in Arizona, as well as their national partners, pressed for the White House to help rebuild coal community economies.

The concept also has traction in Congress, too. New draft infrastructure legislation by Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who leads the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, calls for targeting spending on clean-energy jobs and technologies in communities impacted by the energy transition since the year 2000.

“With the right strategy, reinvesting in our nation’s infrastructure can also strengthen the economy, create jobs, boost our competitiveness and help tackle climate change,” Manchin said Thursday in a hearing about the measure.

In addition, an overhaul of the energy tax code that Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) advanced out of his committee in May would offer enhanced tax incentives for clean energy projects when they are located in fossil fuel-centric communities. The bill also would enact the first-ever labor standards for clean energy and clean vehicle tax credits, requiring that recipients pay the prevailing wage and institute apprenticeship requirements. 

“We think it really could be an essential building block of a just transition package of policy solutions, along with other important things like major investments in reclamation of abandoned mine lands, and other things that are really unique to these regions,” said Shannon Heyck-Williams, director of climate and energy policy for the National Wildlife Federation. 

At the White House, the new president created the Interagency Working Group On Coal And Power Plant Communities. Established during his first week in office on the same day he signed an executive order to combat climate change, the task force represented an early signal that the Biden administration viewed generating high-quality jobs and addressing environmental injustice as part of the nation’s transition away from fossil fuels. 

Easing the Sting of a Just Transition

The working group is tasked with putting the just transition concept into action. Composed of ten Cabinet-level agencies and led by the National Economic Council (NEC) and the National Climate Advisor, the working group includes a quote from the new president in its initial report, which was released in April. 

“We’re never going to forget the men and women who dug the coal and built the nation,” Biden says, marrying environmental progress with economic development to appeal to everyone from energy-state Republicans to union leaders, and to bridge the cultural divide between rural and urban interests. “We’re going to do right by them and make sure they have opportunities to keep building the nation in their own communities and getting paid well for it.”

The Initial Report to the President on Empowering Workers Through Revitalizing Energy Communities identifies 25 geographic areas with “urgent” concerns because of past fossil energy mine and plant closures and the likelihood that more will occur in the future. These are places from Appalachia to Alaska where 142 coal-fired generators have been partly retired or closed entirely since 2009. Of the 237 coal-fired power plants remaining across the country, 69 more are scheduled to retire, many of them in only a few years.

The workgroup suggests targeting these high-priority areas, including seven in the Mountain West, for “federal investment,” including up to $37.9 billion that’s already available for infrastructure projects, such as broadband internet, carbon capture and storage, reclaiming abandoned mine lands and updating outdated water systems.

In addition, the Department of Energy is offering $75 million for carbon capture and storage technology.

“These funds present another opportunity to capitalize on technological advances to prepare traditional energy plants, potentially including those in energy communities, for a clean energy economy,” the initial report says.

Within a year, the workgroup is tasked with creating a “one-stop shop” to help energy communities access federal resources for economic revitalization.

“We have been decarbonizing for a long time,” said Ellen Howard Kutzer, a Colorado-based attorney for Western Resource Advocates. But, she said, focused public policy discussions about a just transition are “relatively new.” 

In recent years, the shutdown of coal-fired power plants has accelerated, and that’s driven a search for strategies to revive the workforce in affected communities, restore their tax bases and ease related community impacts, such as population losses and depressed property values.

“It’s a new problem we need to address,” she said. “The conversation is still evolving.”

Diverse Regions Need Different Types of Help

Solutions will vary from place to place, Kutzer and others agree. What Kentucky towns need in jobs programs and infrastructure investments will differ from those for the rural, western Colorado communities of Nucla and Naturita, which saw the closure of Tri-State Generation’s 100-megawatt, coal-fired power plant in September 2019 and the loss of about $2 million in annual tax revenue.

What kinds of programs—educational, economic development, job training, direct payment—are needed? Should taxpayers foot the bill for programs or the utility’s ratepayers? What are the smartest approaches to maintaining the community as a good place to live and work?

Planning now is crucial to blunt the harshest impacts, said Raimi, whose work includes tracking the effectiveness of federal transition programs. That’s because the four sectors—coal, oil and gas, fossil-fuel power plants and support industries—still play a significant role in rural economies across the country. 

Coal-industry wages and jobs have declined 15 percent or more in seven counties, not just in Appalachia but also in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. In Campbell County, Wyoming, 16 percent of the jobs and 26 percent of wages are tied to coal, Raimi’s report says.

Oil and gas extraction in Sublette County, Wyoming, is linked to 11 percent of jobs and 23 percent of wages. In Washington County, Oklahoma, the sector accounts for 19 percent of jobs and 43 percent of wages.

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The workforce supporting fossil-fuel energy is significant across the country, Raimi’s report shows, from the Utah and Colorado communities of the Paradox Basin, to Texas and the other Permian Basin states, to the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and Montana and to the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania.

In eight counties, people in support jobs account for a quarter of the workforce, and in more than a dozen, the sector’s paychecks make up 30 percent or more of the wages.

Meanwhile, electricity generation from fossil fuels accounts for 5 percent or more of the jobs in eight counties and 5 percent or more of the wages in 49. In Rosebud County, Montana, for instance, 9 percent of jobs and 17 percent of wages were tied to the power sector in 2020, the report says. 

“When people are considering the problem of economic distress to coal communities, I don’t think that they really have a sense of the enormity of the problem.” said Heidi Binko, executive director of the Just Transition Fund, which provides grants and technical assistance to coal communities.

She points to the shutdown of the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station 18 months ago and the closing of the Kayenta Mine that fueled the power plant. The closures amounted to a 25 percent hit to the Navajo Nation’s budget and an 80 percent cut of the Hopi government’s budget.

“We’ve been saying this for years: there’s no way that we are going to build broad public support for climate action unless we address the economic distress that is taking place in these communities,” she said. 

Binko said workforce development and infrastructure improvements can help address the problem. Some approaches are already available and others are under discussion in Washington, including the $5 billion requested for the Rural Partnership Plan as part of Biden’s $1.7 trillion American Jobs Plan. But, she said, it’s important to start anticipating transitions before a plant or a mine shutters.

“We can learn a lot from the previous transitions that we’ve been through,” she said, citing the response to closing military bases, steel plants, paper mills and the declining timber and tobacco industries. “There are things that you can learn from what are ultimately economic adjustment problems.” 

Those lessons also apply to what’s happening because of the clean-energy transition.

In Utah, Mayor Kourianos has been getting help with his ambitious plans. A coalition called the Coal Country Strike Team has built partnerships between the affected communities and universities, government agencies and the business community in hopes of diversifying the economy ahead of the shutdowns of the two remaining power plants in Utah’s coal country, which are scheduled to take place over the next two decades.

He’s open to hearing about ways the federal government might help, but he’s not counting on it. Instead, he said, he’s focused on the solutions that seem to be percolating from the community itself and its partners.

“And it’s working,” he said.

Marianne Lavelle contributed to this story.