Climate 411

The U.S. Department of Energy can marshal its innovation efforts toward beating the climate crisis. Here’s how.

This post was co-authored by Steve Capanna, Director for U.S. Climate Policy and Analysis

In a new policy blueprint, EDF offers recommendations for how the Department of Energy can align its innovation budget with the climate challenge across its technology programs.

President Biden has pledged to deliver the largest ever federal investment in clean energy innovation — $400 billion over 10 years — to combat the climate crisis. And last Friday, the administration reasserted this commitment in its discretionary budget request, which aims to put us on “a path to quadruple clean energy research government-wide in four years, emphasizing U.S. preeminence in developing innovative technologies needed to tackle the climate crisis.”

This shows a recognition that, while technological innovation alone will not solve climate change, it plays a critical role in improving the costs and performance of essential climate technologies like wind turbines and electric vehicles, allowing the United States to more rapidly reduce greenhouse gases, eliminate health-harming pollution and create jobs in emerging energy sectors. Innovation is also essential for developing and commercializing the next generation of clean energy tools such as clean hydrogen and carbon removal that we need to reach net-zero emissions in the U.S. no later than 2050.

While the Department of Energy funding has helped reduce the costs and improve the performance of several key climate technologies, resulting in huge economic and environmental benefits, the agency’s innovation priorities and budgets have, to some extent, failed to keep pace with the extraordinary challenges and opportunities in front of us.

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Posted in Energy, Greenhouse Gas Emissions / Comments are closed

Federal labor policies are critical for ensuring a fair energy transition

This fourth report in a joint research series by Environmental Defense Fund and Resources for the Future examines U.S. federal labor programs and policies that can support fossil fuel workers through the energy transition. Wesley Look, Molly Robertson, and Dan Propp of RFF and Jake Higdon of EDF contributed to the report described in this blog post.

At the core of the energy transition challenge is helping impacted workers find and secure new, family-sustaining job opportunities. Colorado’s efforts to support coal workers in transition provides a key example of the kind of labor policies needed — but are all too often absent. When Colorado passed a landmark climate bill in 2019, which requires the state to cut statewide emissions in half by 2030 and 90% by 2050, it also established the nation’s first Office of Just Transition to support the more than 2,000 workers in coal mines and coal-fired power plants and the communities that rely on them.

Xcel Energy, the largest operator of coal-fired electricity generation in Colorado and a company with its own reduction targets, has contributed to the Office’s early plans. One Xcel power plant, the Hayden Generating Station, will close ahead of schedule, and the company is collaborating with an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) local union to provide retraining or retirement for the full workforce at the facility. While there is much more to do to fulfill the promise of the Office of Just Transition, this is an encouraging sign, even as many advocates for energy transition continue to push the utility and the state to move faster.

Unfortunately, across the U.S., workforce development efforts like those at the Hayden Generating Station are more the exception than the rule.

Today, the overwhelming majority of U.S. power plant and mine closures occur with very little proactive planning or training to ensure workers can find new, high-quality, local jobs. It doesn’t have to be that way. As the energy transition accelerates, driven by low-cost clean energy and an urgent need to tackle the climate crisis, federal policy can help fossil fuel workers access workforce development services and can ensure strong labor protections. These policies can guarantee a stronger baseline of support for workers, while complementing locally-tailored solutions that are community-led like those underway in Colorado.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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