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To fight climate change, strand fossil fuel assets, not workers

To fight climate change, strand fossil fuel assets, not workers
© Getty

The Hobet-21 coal site in Boone County, W. Va., was on its last legs in 2014, when environmental groups brought a renewed campaign against it. The mountaintop removal mine survived decades of bankruptcies, lawsuits and the increasingly untenable economics of coal. Executives flipped their liabilities from one owner to the next, even as they received multi-million dollar buyouts. When the site finally closed the following year, hundreds of ex-miners and their families were left with a scarred landscape, a shell of a pension plan and expiring health care. State efforts to remediate and return Hobet-21 to economic use have fallen flat, and in the five years since the mine closed Boone County has lost one-third of its jobs and half of its tax base. 

This is the story of coal communities in 21st century America — an uncontrolled experiment in disinvestment. Nationwide, 278 different counties across 46 states have experienced the closure of at least one coal power plant since 2000, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration and Census Bureau data. Hundreds more communities are home to mines and power plants that will likely close as coal consumption plummets over the next decade. These communities could face fiscal instability that threatens their ability to provide essential services like education, and job losses that will ripple beyond the mining sector. But their future is not set in stone. 

Environmental advocates, myself included, often cite the need for a “just transition” to ensure that workers in polluting industries are not left behind in the shift to a low-carbon economy. Until now, our rhetoric has not been matched with policy action. To accelerate the clean energy transition and build a broad coalition for climate action, policymakers must mobilize significant public resources toward the people and places that depend on the fossil fuel industry.

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Let’s be clear: Dismantling fossil fuel assets is necessary to preserve a habitable planet. Hobet-21 was a nightmare both for the climate and for vulnerable communities nearby, flushing the local watershed with toxic chemicals. The fossil fuel industry’s increasingly untenable environmental and economic position, highlighted by activists, media personalities and major financial institutions alike, means that hundreds of billions of dollars in fossil fuel investments are poised to become “stranded assets” in coming years.

The fossil fuel era is also marked by repeated exploitation of workers and communities, many of whom are held captive by the industry’s ups and downs. For decades, automation has been decimating employment in mining communities. More than 1,500 oil and gas workers died from 2008 to 2017 in the quest for fracked fuels and American energy dominance. And in bankruptcy after bankruptcy, coal executives have cheated workers out of their hard-earned benefits.

Too often, though, the climate policy community falls into the same trap as the fossil fuel industry: prioritizing physical capital over human lives. Too often, we tally power plant closures without recognizing their acute local consequences. And, too often, we devise policy based on energy system models rather than community needs. At the end of the day, it does not matter which combination of forces caused the demise of fossil fuel facilities like the Hobet mine. If we overlook affected workers, we will have failed in our commitment to climate justice.

To strand fossil fuel assets without stranding workers, federal policy makers should establish and invest in major new programs that create high quality jobs in emerging sectors, guarantee worker benefits and develop social and physical infrastructure in fossil fuel-dependent regions. These investments must empower community decision-making, not impose a one-size-fits-all approach.

First, in response to the immediate jobs crisis induced by the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers should pass proposed legislation to stimulate tens of thousands of jobs cleaning up abandoned mines and plugging old oil and gas wells. Policy can also incentivize the location of clean manufacturing in historically fossil fuel-reliant communities, with stipulations for quality union jobs and strong labor standards — something the clean energy industry has often lacked.

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Second, today’s bankruptcy laws allow executives to squirm out of employer obligations and environmental clean-up. Policymakers should guarantee worker pensions, health care and disability benefits, and reform the bankruptcy process to consistently hold companies accountable for clean-up, so communities are not left with scarred landscapes and polluted waterways.

Finally, we need a massive deployment of federal funds to fossil fuel-producing regions to build the social and physical infrastructure to improve local public health outcomes, education and economic diversification. Investments should expand physical and mental health services, repair crumbling water infrastructure and increase broadband access.

There is a well-trod slogan in the climate movement: People and planet over profit. Historically, however, when profits in an industry disappear, our society abandons the people that depend on it for their livelihoods. 

It doesn’t have to be that way. 

A national just transition policy that drives unprecedented public investment into fossil fuel-dependent communities is a moral imperative. It is also a political one if we hope to take ambitious climate action. Workers will feel forced to resist change, unless they can see a tangible path forward in a clean economy.

It is high time we give them one.

Jake Higdon is a senior analyst, U.S. climate policy at Environmental Defense Fund, a Clean Energy Leadership Institute fellow, and a contributor at Data For Progress.