American Jobs Plan Offers Welcome Focus on Rural Communities

April 2, 2021
White House/Flickr
Jeremy Richardson
Senior Energy Analyst

Speaking from the carpenters training facility near Pittsburgh, President Biden yesterday laid out a bold vision for economic recovery, called the American Jobs Plan, that identifies a wide range of investments needed in our nation’s crumbling infrastructure. These investments will help drive deployment of clean energy and make our infrastructure more resilient to climate change. The plan emphasizes the need for creating family-sustaining union jobs across sectors of the economy and underscores the critical need to invest heavily in historically marginalized communities in line with the Justice40 Initiative. And the plan includes strong and much needed investments in rural communities—critical investments in places that have faced and continue to face economic disruption from the decline of the coal industry.

In the context of the shift to a clean energy economy, how does the plan help workers and communities dependent on the coal industry?

Broad scope

Coal workers and the places where they live and work are being left behind in the transition to a clean energy economy. Over the last decade, this trend has been driven by economics as cheaper and cleaner forms of electricity are increasingly available and cost effective. But this transition is happening largely without forethought or planning, leaving workers and communities facing the resulting economic upheaval. In many of these (largely rural) places, the coal mine or power plant is the area’s biggest employer by far, and it provides high paying jobs with good benefits. As we collectively push to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels to meet President Biden’s goal of 100 percent clean electricity by 2035, we must not leave these workers and communities to fend for themselves.

And Mr. Biden’s plan names this right up front:

And, the plan invests in rural communities and communities impacted by the market-based transition to clean energy.

But comprehensive solutions require a very broad set of policies and programs that cross a wide range of issues (and, not unimportantly, Congressional committee jurisdictions). The National Economic Transition platform articulated by leaders from coal communities, Tribal nations, and labor unions (and which included UCS) is an excellent overview of the breadth of policies and robust investments needed to make these workers and communities whole. How did Biden’s plan measure up?

Transformational ideas

There is a lot of excitement (see here) around the American Jobs Plan and its stated commitment to rural communities. One critical aspect of encouraging economic development is broadband access—and the plan would invest $100 billion over 8 years to ensure affordable broadband access for all Americans. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of reliable access to fast internet as an enabler of the jobs of the future, access to remote work and education opportunities, and more.

Biden’s plan would also invest $56 billion through grants and low-cost flexible loans to modernize drinking water and wastewater systems focused on improving infrastructure in rural America. Flint, Michigan comes to mind when we think of drinking water (and the plan separately calls for $45 billion to replace all lead service pipes nationwide), but water infrastructure is in critical need of improvement nationwide. For example, Martin County, Kentucky, loses as much as 70 percent of its drinking water simply due to leaks in the system.

And the plan proposes $12 billion for the nation’s community colleges—locally and regionally based institutions that can help train workers for the jobs of the future.

Tell me more

A number of additional buckets of investments in the plan caught my eye—but the details of how they are implemented and prioritized will be critical to their ultimate success.

For example, the plan proposes $16 billion for plugging orphaned oil and gas wells and reclaiming both hard rock and coal mining sites. It doesn’t specify the breakdown in cleaning up these sites, but it’s likely that this amount is insufficient to meet the needs. And these investments create jobs, often in the places where jobs are being lost. The $5 billion addition to the Superfund and brownfields program is a similar story—much more money is needed to clean up a backlog of sites.

In terms of economic development, the plan names a number of programs that are critical to communities in transition: the Appalachian Regional Commission’s POWER program, the Economic Development Administration’s Public Works program; and community revitalization programs at HUD and USDA. But there is no mention of funding levels for these programs—something I’ll be looking for in the upcoming budget request to Congress.

Maybe the biggest question mark in my mind is how the money for workforce training will be used and prioritized. The plan calls for a new Dislocated Worker Program at the Department of Labor funded to the tune of $40 billion, and it proposes $48 billion to “workforce development infrastructure and worker protection,” with a focus on creating apprenticeship opportunities. A lot of important pieces of the puzzle are packed into this bucket, ranging from career pathway programs in middle and high schools, to community college partnerships, to enforcement of labor standards. But how will the different programs and initiatives be prioritized? Will there be an explicit focus on workers who lose their jobs in the shift to a clean energy economy? If so, will they be eligible for wage replacement or wage insurance? (One study suggests that the lack of income during training programs is responsible for poor economic outcomes among participants in training programs.)

Omissions

The plan is silent on a number of topics that are important to a successful transition. There is no mention of the impending insolvency of the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund (or the extension of the coal excise tax needed to at least partially address it). There is no mention of the need to remove loopholes from our nation’s bankruptcy laws that allow companies to get out of their responsibilities to workers and the environment. And there is no mention of the need for structures to ensure federal coordination of resources aimed at helping communities and workers, building on the creation of the Interagency Working Group created on January 27. And a big missed opportunity is the lack of mention of loan forgiveness at the Rural Utilities Service, which could be used to help rural electric cooperatives wean themselves off coal, provide transition assistance to communities and workers, and save customers money.

Now comes the hard part

Moving forward, we will all need to push harder to strengthen the plan and, more importantly, to make it real. It’s clear the American Jobs Plan is a strong opening bid—and the details of how the money is invested and which pieces are prioritized will determine the long-term outcomes and impacts. But most importantly, Congress must pass it. Until President Biden signs his name on the dotted line, none of this (the American Jobs plan, the president’s speech, and my little blog) are anything more than words. Strong words, but still just words. It’s going to take all hands on deck to make the plan a reality.

About the author

More from Jeremy

Hailing from a third-generation coal mining family in West Virginia, and with more than ten years of experience in climate and energy issues, Dr. Richardson focuses on federal climate and energy policy development, specializing in the economics of energy—particularly coal and nuclear power—and writes and speaks passionately about the need for a just transition for the coalfields.