How to Support our Energy Veterans

May 4, 2021 | 6:00 am
Señor Codo/Creative Commons (Flickr)
Jeremy Richardson
Former Contributor

As climate advocates, we support the shift away from coal and toward cleaner forms of energy, pointing out the reasons that we need to accelerate that trend. While the move away from coal helps reduce heat trapping emissions and improves public health, the closure of coal mines and coal-fired power plants often leave economic upheaval in their wake.

Just take a look at Adams County, Ohio, which in 2018 faced the closure of two coal-fired power plants, by far the largest employer in the county. Community leaders faced a sharp drop in tax revenue, and individual workers suddenly had to figure out how to provide for their families while staying in the communities they called home. The people harmed by the upheaval are the very men and women—energy veterans—who have done the difficult and dangerous jobs to help keep the lights on.

A new analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists—and co-created with the Utility Workers Union of America—offers a blueprint for how to prevent many more communities in the United States from suffering the same fate. We identified and quantified a set of comprehensive and robust resources that are needed so that workers have the time necessary to prepare for new jobs with family-sustaining wages. Climate advocates must fight for supporting our energy veterans alongside bold action to address the urgency of climate change.

What’s needed

Coalitions have created resources like the National Economic Transition platform and the BlueGreen Alliance Solidarity for Climate Action that specify in detail the broad range of policies and resources that both workers and communities need to move forward. Our list of priorities for workers builds on those efforts. Specifically:

  • Dislocated workers would be eligible for five years of comprehensive wage and benefit replacement—which includes continued health care coverage and employer retirement contributions. Five years allows individual workers time to plan and train for new career opportunities while continuing to support their families.
  • Dislocated workers and their children would be eligible for free educational benefits, which could take the form of a 4-year university, a 2-year community college, or any number of vocational and technical education programs. The post-9/11 GI Bill offers a precedent.
  • Workers would be presumed eligible for programs like the Adult and Dislocated Worker Programs at the Department of Labor, allowing them to access training programs and job placement services.
  • Additional supports are also needed. Workers should be able to access mental health and counseling services, as well as relocation allowances when appropriate in individual circumstances.

Our analysis demonstrates that the cost to provide these resources to the workers who will face job losses before reaching retirement age ranges from $33 billion (over 25 years) to $83 billion (over 15 years). (The lower cost estimate is reflective of the fact that more workers will reach age 65 over the longer lifetime of the program and therefore fewer will need support; see assumptions table.)

These figures represent only a tiny fraction of the trillions of dollars that must be invested in the country’s energy system over the next three decades to meet our science-driven goal of net zero CO2 emissions by midcentury. And the United States has demonstrated its willingness to invest in recovery in the face of a crisis, as we did during the pandemic and following the Great Recession. The tables show the range of costs for each benefit we identified, as well as the key assumptions we made.

Coal has a broad geographic reach

We also looked at which places have been or are likely to experience job losses and economic impacts from the decline of coal. We identified ten risk criteria composed of recent declines in coal mining, recent plant closures, current jobs, future plant closures, and economic indicators like unemployment and poverty rate. The report goes into detail about the criteria, the technical appendix splits out the map for mining and power plant counties, and my colleague James Gignac has zoomed in on three Midwestern states.

Fight for our energy veterans

The coal industry, and the jobs and economic activity that it supports, has reached a moment of reckoning. The reality is that coal will not return to its heyday; the industry will continue its decline simply because cheaper and cleaner technologies are widely available and rapidly scaling. This underscores the urgency of supporting and respecting our nation’s energy veterans. We must acknowledge that thoughtful and intentional planning and comprehensive support are critical to honoring the workers and communities that have sacrificed so much to build this country. The fact is that this shift is already happening, leading to devastating consequences for families and communities. We owe far more to those who have given us so much.