Climate 411

How public benefits programs can help protect fossil fuel workers and communities in transition

This third report in a joint research series by Environmental Defense Fund and Resources for the Future examines public benefits programs designed to protect individual and community economic security and health as the U.S. transitions to a clean economy. Jake Higdon of EDF and Molly Robertson of RFF co-authored the report described in this blog post. All views expressed here are EDF’s.

Coal miner in Jenkins, Kentucky.

Coal miner in Jenkins, Kentucky.

In hundreds of communities around the U.S., coal miners are paying a tragic price for the extended time they spent breathing in coal dust underground: They suffer from Black Lung Disease, which robs patients of their ability to breathe without assistance. Tragically, there is no cure — only treatments that ease the symptoms.

Harvey Hess of southwest Virginia is one of those retired miners. He began working in coal mines on his 17th birthday and continued working in them for 37 years. Now, like many with Black Lung Disease, he receives disability benefits from a federal trust fund. These crucial funds allow Harvey and others to afford essential medical support, like the oxygen tank he relies on to breathe 24/7.

However, Black Lung Disease is not the only chronic issue facing coal workers and coal communities, and it is also not the only instance where public benefits can help support workers’ health and financial security. Besides Black Lung Disease benefits, the U.S. government has also stepped in to support union pensions and health care as coal companies dodge their promises to employees through bankruptcy hearings. And the spillover effects from the decline in production of coal and other fossil fuels can leave millions of Americans in fossil fuel regions — beyond just the energy workers themselves — in need of immediate assistance to soften the economic downturn, maintain economic stability and preserve community health.

The role of public benefits programs

Policies that distribute resources to support general wellness, buffer communities from economic shock, and ensure individuals’ ability to meet their basic needs are sometimes referred to as “public benefits.” For example, they provide retirees with pensions, displaced and disabled workers with financial relief, and low-income families with health care and nutritional assistance.

National public benefits are often referred to as the social safety net because they serve as the first line of defense in times of crisis. The current COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of expanded social safety net programs, like unemployment insurance, in insulating families and communities from the most severe economic shocks. However, compared to peer nations, the U.S. spends a relatively small percentage of its GDP on social safety net programs for workers and has virtually no safety net for local governments, which often experience fiscal crises during economic downturns, rendering them unable to provide essential services — often at a time when more people need them.

As we explore in other reports in this series, fossil fuel communities are likely to need targeted federal policies in economic development, workforce development, infrastructure, environmental remediation, and more as the U.S. transitions to a clean economy. Although it is clear that broad public benefits cannot ensure fairness for workers and communities alone, they can play a complementary role to these more targeted approaches. 

Read More »

Posted in Energy, Jobs / Read 1 Response

Environmental remediation and infrastructure policies offer crucial opportunities for fossil fuel communities in transition

This second report in a joint research series by Environmental Defense Fund and Resources for the Future examines U.S. federal environmental remediation and infrastructure policies that can create jobs and restore communities that have been historically reliant on fossil fuels. Daniel Raimi of RFF authored the report described in this blog post. All views expressed here are EDF’s.

When a fossil fuel plant or mine shuts down, jobs and economic prosperity are lost — but often, the pollution stays. Communities across the U.S. reliant on fossil fuels — and those located near them — have dealt with the dangerous air and water pollution that abandoned oil and gas wells, coal mines and coal-powered plants can leave behind. In Montana, for example, residents in the small town of Belt were surprised to discover dissolved aluminum in their local creek that was 144 times the surface water quality standard; it was coming from an abandoned coal mine upstream.

This is just one example of a massive problem: There are millions of sites in the US in need of environmental remediation, and there will be many more as the US transitions to a clean economy in the coming years.

Furthermore, the closure of a local power plant, mine or other high-carbon industry can result in a loss of government revenue that keeps crucial infrastructure that communities rely on, like roads and clean water, safe and intact. And both consequences of this loss — pollution and aging infrastructure — further worsen the potential for new economic opportunities that can revitalize a town.

This next report in our research series on fairness for fossil fuel workers and communities aims to give federal policymakers an understanding of how environmental remediation and infrastructure policies can support communities affected by the transition to a clean economy. Policymakers can also harness some of these policies to immediately create jobs in communities hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Below, we summarize Raimi’s key observations from a review of the largest existing federal programs focused on environmental remediation and infrastructure.

Read More »

Posted in Jobs / Comments are closed

New report: How economic development policies can support fossil fuel communities in the move to a clean economy

This first report in a new joint research series by Environmental Defense Fund and Resources for the Future examines US federal economic development programs and policies that can revitalize communities that have been historically reliant on fossil fuels. Daniel Raimi, Wesley Look, Molly Robertson of RFF and Jake Higdon of EDF contributed to the report described in this blog post.

For a long time, Boone County, West Virginia was a vibrant coal community at the center of Appalachia, ranked consistently as the top county for coal production in the state. At one point, the county was able to capitalize on a surplus of revenue, derived largely from the state’s coal severance tax, to fund new sports fields and judicial buildings. But the decline in US coal production over the last decade, driven by increasingly competitive energy alternatives, including wind and solar, led to mine closures in West Virginia — and an exodus of coal workers and their families. Boone County’s budget diminished along with the closures: Its General Fund Revenue fell by half in the last five years.

In 2019, local officials faced a $2.5 million budget shortfall, forcing them to make difficult cuts to essential community services.

Read More »

Posted in Energy, Green Jobs, Jobs / Comments are closed