Build Back Better is crucial to boost climate action without leaving coal miners behind

Last weekend, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) threw a wrench into discussions of the Build Back Better (BBB) Act by indicating he does not currently support its passage — imperiling the bill’s future and delaying the urgent funding it would provide to support families reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic and take crucial climate action.

In response, the United Mine Workers of America (which represents, among others, West Virginia’s coal miners) issued a statement noting BBB would provide critical support for workers as the inevitable decline of coal industry jobs continues, as well as create new opportunities for jobs in the clean energy-based economy, to which the world must transition quickly to prevent the worst impacts from climate change. 

The U.S. coal industry has been declining for years; over the last decade, market forces such as low natural gas prices and rapidly expanding solar and wind energy (as well as the expanding use of automation in coal production) have turned coal mining into a shadow of what it once was. At the end of 2020, there were only 43,180 coal miners remaining in the United States, and communities from West Virginia to Montana to Kentucky are feeling the economic pain of coal’s decline (as well as its lingering pollution). As these workers — many of whose families have spent years or even generations in this industry — look toward the future, they deserve assurance that they won’t be abandoned by their employers and left with no economic opportunities.

But a transition that supports fossil workers and communities is not going to happen on its own. We need intentional policies that invest in these workers and communities.

The hundreds of billions of dollars of investment in clean energy and climate actions included in the BBB bill will be a net win for the economy and American jobs; the Economic Policy Institute projects that it will support 3.2 million jobs over the 10-year budgeting period. The BBB act would ensure that federal investments go to communities that disproportionately bear the burden of pollution and those that are dependent on the fossil fuel sectors that are in decline.  

The Build Back Better bill includes a range of provisions that would support miners in West Virginia and beyond. It would give a four-year extension to a fund through which coal companies support miners who have contracted black lung disease; without BBB, this fund will be cut in half on Jan. 1. The BBB act would make key investments in fossil fuel communities, including $5 billion for the Department of Energy’s Energy Community Reinvestment Financing Program to support low-carbon investments in energy communities, and $5 billion for the Economic Development Administration to develop regional economic growth clusters and award grants for economic development in energy transition communities and others with a history of economic distress. It would also provide additional tax incentives to encourage the building of clean energy and advanced energy manufacturing facilities in energy communities — including those impacted by the closure of coal mines and coal-fired electricity generating units — where they will generate local revenue and serve as a new source of employment for former miners. And it would penalize companies if they deny their workers the ability to unionize, thus helping to protect workers’ right to organize and collectively advocate for higher wages, better benefits and safer working conditions.

In addition, other climate provisions in BBB can help disadvantaged communities across areas historically dependent on fossil fuel production, such as the entire Appalachian region. Examples include investments in improving water infrastructure to provide clean drinking water, improving stormwater and wastewater infrastructure (including $225 million to help families struggling to pay their water and wastewater bills), and replacing lead water service lines. The BBB bill also includes environmental and climate justice block grants that can help clean up pollution from shuttered or abandoned fossil fuel sites and create a Clean Energy and Sustainability Accelerator, which will invest in clean energy projects across the country while delivering 40 percent of the benefits of investments to disadvantaged communities. These investments are long overdue and can go a long way to improve the public health and economic vitality of regions that have borne the brunt of fossil fuel pollution for decades.

Further, BBB provisions propose not just to create jobs in the clean energy future, but to ensure these newly created jobs are high-quality, support families and are accessible to a diverse and growing workforce. To access the full value of BBB’s signature, emissions-reducing tax incentives, designed to drive the deployment of clean energy and electric vehicles, employers must meet wage and apprenticeships standards. Specifically, employers must pay wages that meet or exceed a locally determined, position-based floor during construction, and in some cases after. They must also ensure that a certain percentage of total labor hours support qualified apprenticeships.

We are already seeing what the collapse of the coal industry looks like when there are no protections in place — but it doesn’t have to be this way. Among its massive other benefits, passing the BBB act will help manage this essential economic transition to create a zero-carbon world — without leaving coal miners and other workers behind.

Dan Lashof is the director of World Resources, United States. Follow him on Twitter: @DLashof

Devashree Saha is a senior associate at World Resources Institute, United States. Follow her on Twitter: @Devashree_Saha

Energy and Environment