A just transition to sustainable energy requires holding polluters accountable

A just transition to sustainable energy requires holding polluters accountable
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The Biden administration and the nation’s top miners' union agree that a clean, healthy future means a future without coal and that we need to bring coal communities along with us during this transition. As members of Congress and the administration identify the needed investments to clean up and revitalize coal communities, we shouldn’t let the companies that have benefitted and continue to benefit from mining and combusting coal off the hook. 

For decades, coal mining and combustion has permeated communities with harmful pollution. From coal extraction – where the tops of mountains are sometimes blown off, polluting local water supplies and destroying ecosystems – to combustion, which leaves behind ash laced with toxins, the practices are correlated with higher rates of death from cancer and cardiovascular disease as well as birth defects in surrounding communities. 

To protect communities from the coal mining and combustion still ahead, the government should put a stop to mountaintop removal practices and better regulate coal ash. The latter should include improving monitoring of surface and groundwater, but also eliminating loopholes that allow existing operators to seek exemptions.

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Much of the challenge centers on legacy pollution. This is a problem the government has been trying to solve since the 1970s. Congress created the Abandoned Mine Land fund to cover the cost of reclaiming mines abandoned before the bill became law in 1977. More than four decades later, the fund is still more than $10 billion short of cleaning up these mines. Coal-mining operations are required to funnel only a small fraction of their earnings into the fund each year — $150 million in 2019. 

At that rate, it would take more than half-a-century to clean up the old, abandoned mines. Moreover, the amount mining operators are required to pay is proportional to the amount of coal produced, so their contribution will only go down with time unless changes are made to increase their responsibility for these costs. Congress can increase these rates as it works to pass an extension of the fund.

There is also the issue of unreclaimed or poorly reclaimed mining sites since 1977, a time punctuated by more than 60 coal bankruptcies. Coal companies were supposed to be responsible for these restorations. But too often, going into bankruptcy allowed them to shed clean-up responsibilities. An escape route known as “self-bonding” permitted this to occur. Coal companies guaranteed that they could cover future costs by demonstrating that they had sufficient funds on hand, guarantees which fell short when the companies became insolvent. Congress should end the practice of self-bonding – as the House’s CLEAN Future Act does – and force companies to confront these clean-ups on their own moving forward through upfront insurance. Further, Congress should amend the federal bankruptcy code to prioritize payment for reclamation and cleanup costs.

Pollution from coal mining and combustion makes people sick. That pollution can also decrease home values and drive businesses away. Instead of counterbalancing these economic effects with jobs, a shuttering coal industry has left pits of pollution and many unemployed. There are half as many workers employed by the coal industry today than there were in 2011, with 7,000 left unemployed just since COVID-19 hit. With their economies tied to the mines, coal communities lose an estimated four jobs for every unemployed coal worker. And yet, more layoffs will come as the country transitions away from coal-fired power. 

The work to revitalize these communities must be comprehensive. Identifying federal resources, as the president’s coal working group did in its initial report, and coordinating those resources are good first steps. But making meaningful progress ultimately depends on putting people to work in good paying jobs, sooner rather than later.

Here, coal companies can again bear some of the burden, rehiring and training coal workers to perform clean-up jobs. The federal government can help encourage this by offering tax credits as incentives. This would supplement the identified federal grant programs, as well as extensive job training programs for workers to learn new skills and join other industries.

Coal companies have prioritized their wallets over their workers for too long. It’s time to ensure that the communities that suffer from both job losses and decades of pollution have their chance to rise. The Biden administration knows that a just transition to a sustainable energy future is possible only if these communities are safe, healthy and economically vibrant. But a just transition also requires holding the polluters accountable. 

Mark Templeton is a clinical professor of law and director of the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School. Daniel Abrams, University of Chicago Law Class of 2021, assisted in the research supporting this piece.