Climate 411

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.

Key Findings on Environmental Remediation Policies

First and foremost, federal environmental remediation programs, such as Superfund, Brownfields and oil and gas restoration programs, have a history of cleaning up harmful pollution sites, creating a healthier environment that can give communities the opportunity to thrive. For fossil fuel communities in transition, these programs bring the added benefits of creating near-term job opportunities and restoring sites to economic use where jobs and economic prosperity have been lost:

  • The federal government already plays a large role in addressing polluted sites across the US. In many cases, remediation needs are found in and around regions that have been historically dependent on coal, oil and natural gas production, offering the potential for new investment to support fossil fuel workers and communities. 
  • There is strong evidence that remediation projects increase local employment in the short-term, but it is not clear whether those employment benefits continue after a site has been remediated or restored. It is also unclear whether remediation projects primarily support workers in affected communities or workers from other locations. More research on the long-term employment effects of environmental remediation projects would be valuable.
  • Most evidence suggests that remediating polluted sites increases local property values. This could particularly benefit fossil fuel communities and environmental justice communities, which may experience pollution at greater rates than the broader population.
  • Some evidence suggests that environmental remediation projects may disproportionately occur in white communities, and that remediation programs could lead to “environmental gentrification” (when pollution clean up increases local property values and attracts wealthier residents to a previously polluted or disenfranchised neighborhood). This highlights the importance of considering equity and justice in the design and implementation of environmental remediation policies.

Key Findings on Infrastructure Policies

Infrastructure programs for highways, public transport, and clean water also have the potential to support employment and economic growth in communities heavily dependent on fossil fossils:

  • Transportation infrastructure projects create local construction and related jobs, and they can also induce longer-term economic development by making transportation easier and cheaper. Improving transportation networks in rural energy communities can enhance their physical access to markets, providing a stronger foundation for future economic growth.
  • Affordable access to clean water is essential for any community. If fossil fuel communities experience declining tax revenue and/or population, it may become difficult for local governments to finance water system maintenance and upgrades. In addition, these communities may be at greater risk due to the legacy of pollution that sometimes accompanies fossil fuel extraction, processing and combustion.
  • The design, implementation, and enforcement of infrastructure policies will shape whether, and to what extent, future infrastructure spending reduces or exacerbates historical inequities. Low income and communities of color have experienced environmental injustices often related to the siting, maintenance or administration of public infrastructure.
  •  It’s also important to note: Economists have debated whether infrastructure investment increases overall economic activity or simply redistributes that activity. While the former outcome is clearly preferable across society, the latter may also be valuable in the context of moving to a clean economy, if new infrastructure serves communities negatively affected by a shift away from fossil energy.

What’s next?

Environmental remediation and infrastructure policies can offer crucial opportunities for fossil fuel dependent communities and regions in addition to cleaner air and water, including near-term jobs, increased property values and longer-term economic growth. The design and implementation of these programs must be designed to lead to equitable and just outcomes.

Beyond environmental remediation and infrastructure needs, there are plenty of other challenges these communities face in the transition to a clean economy that may warrant federal policy support. This is our second report exploring approaches for ensuring fairness for fossil fuel workers and communities: the first, on federal economic development policies, was released last month. Over the coming months, we will publish additional reports, blogs and materials in this series to address other key policy mechanisms, including investments in workforce development programs, labor standards and public benefits, such as unemployment compensation and health care.

Read the full environmental remediation and infrastructure report here.

Learn more about the full series on ensuring fairness for fossil fuel workers and communities here.

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.

The surrounding communities reliant on coal as an economic driver, including the families of workers, local business owners, teachers, nurses, and more, have struggled to find new opportunities in the wake of its downfall. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated this trend in the short term. And in the long run, the necessary move to a clean economy will not only disrupt coal communities, it will impact communities reliant on oil and gas and other industries reliant on fossil fuels. Economic development policies can be a lifeline for these communities, putting them on a path to diversify and revitalize local economies through public and private sector funding. 

Our first report in this research series on fairness for fossil fuel workers and communities aims to give federal policymakers an understanding of the tools at their disposal to generate new economic opportunities in communities affected by transition to a clean economy. This entails examining both existing federal economic development programs and proposals. In our analysis, we divide economic development programs into those that explicitly target regions where natural resources (particularly fossil fuels) underpin the local economy, and those that have a broader geographic scope. We then categorize each set of programs into two types of intervention: capacity building and financial support. Capacity-building programs provide organizations with technical assistance, research support, and other skills that can help them implement successful local economic development programs. Financial support involves funding federal, state, and local programs, non-profits, and private entities through grants, loans, or other mechanisms.

Key insights

Our review of these programs, and our examination of the empirical literature on their effectiveness, yields five key insights into how federal economic development policy can be utilized to ensure a fair transition to a clean economy.

  1. First and foremost, we find that federal intervention can help support medium- and long-term economic development in numerous local contexts. The available empirical studies, while limited, show that both geographically targeted programs and those with a broad geographic and economic scope can lead to increased employment, greater business stability, and other local economic benefits.
  2. The existence of many federal, state, and local economic development programs means that any successful attempt to deliver fairness for workers and communities will require substantial coordination across governmental bodies and with local stakeholders. A lack of coordination across federal programs has been highlighted as a potential challenge by numerous researchers, and recent efforts have sought to better coordinate and streamline the array of existing federal economic development programs.
  3. Existing economic development programs can be augmented or redirected to support fossil fuel-dependent communities and workers, even if a given program was not originally designed for that purpose. Numerous programs examined in our report have offered support to communities facing economic challenges for over half a century or more. For instance, the POWER Initiative, which leverages an array of existing programs to deliver economic development and other programming in close partnership with energy communities, could be an important model for federal policy that invests in workers and jobs.
  4. Federal programs explicitly targeting economic development have limited funding, with just $80 million designated to support economic development in fossil energy communities. This level of spending would need to grow considerably to support the many workers and communities affected by the shift toward clean energy.
  5. Finally, because the transition to a clean energy economy will have geographically concentrated economic effects, policies supporting economic development in the most affected communities will most likely need to be geographically targeted. But policy design matters. Some geographically-targeted programs, such as Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) grants, have seen success in delivering long-term income and employment growth in natural resource dependent communities. Others, such as the Secure Rural Schools program, have failed to support their intended beneficiaries (i.e., schools) and created planning challenges for local governments, businesses, and residents due to uncertain funding levels. Policymakers should design and implement geographically-targeted policies carefully and with these divergent experiences in mind.

What’s next?

Supporting economic development in fossil fuel dependent communities and regions comprises one category of solutions in the complex set of challenges associated with the transition to a clean economy. Over the next few months, we will publish more reports, blogs and materials in this series to address other key policy mechanisms that can support workers and communities in transition, including investments in environmental remediation, infrastructure, workforce development programs, labor standards, clean energy, and public benefits, such as unemployment compensation and public health care. EDF’s aim is to complement the work that groups like Just Transition Fund and BlueGreen Alliance have been leading in this space, by sharing useful insights on existing policies and programs designed to deliver on the promise of fairness for fossil fuel workers and communities.

Read the full economic development report here.

Learn more about this series here.

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