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Investing in a Worker-Centered Federal Response to Energy Transition

, senior energy analyst | March 29, 2021, 3:31 pm EDT
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As we collectively work toward a clean energy economy, many advocates have started to recognize the need to address the disproportionate impact that such a transition will have on the workers and communities that depend on the fossil fuel industries to earn their livelihoods and power their economies. But what can policymakers do about it? And what should advocates be asking for?

I’m excited to say that after many years of inaction, we have finally reached a point where actual legislation is being written to address these thorny issues. Here I’ll focus on just one piece—ensuring that the federal government coordinates its resources and programs to work towards a common end.

The critical need for coordination

Ensuring a fair transition for coal workers and communities requires a comprehensive, robust, and sustained set of investments and policies. UCS joined coal community, tribal, and labor leaders in the creation of the National Economic Transition (NET) platform, which articulates that comprehensive set of solutions. These include local leadership, economic diversification and planning, workforce development and education/training, reclamation and remediation, infrastructure investments, bankruptcy reform, and (the subject of this blog) federal coordination. New programs and resources must be created to address these wide-ranging issues, but existing programs can be a starting point.

The issue is that a range of federal programs supporting workforce development, economic development, and related issues are spread across more than 12 federal agencies and departments, each focused on specific subsets of the broader issue or on particular geographies. That’s why the NET coalition immediately urged the Biden administration to set up a federal coordinating office focused on coal transition.

On January 27, 2021, President Biden signed Executive Order 14008, “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad”—and it included the establishment of an Interagency Working Group (IWG) on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization (see sections 217-218), comprised of leaders from 12 different federal agencies and departments. The charge of the IWG is to “coordinate the identification and delivery of Federal resources to revitalize the economies of coal, oil and gas, and power plant communities,” as well as to develop strategies to implement policies such as pollution cleanup and to assess ways to ensure benefits and protections for coal and plant workers.

Why do we need a White House-level coordinating office? White House leadership is essential for bringing federal agencies together and aligning resources and programs to work toward a common end—centered on the very localized problems that we are trying to address.

What would it do, aside from writing reports?

Sure, reports are interesting and important, and more are needed on this topic, but how would this new coordinating office work and what would it do? One portion is the IWG (or task force) made of high-level leaders from all relevant agencies to ensure coordination. But equally as important is engagement with actual people and communities affected by the energy transition.

That’s why we call for the creation of a stakeholder advisory board or committee made up of representatives of affected communities and experts, including unions, community leaders, workers, environmental justice representatives, and utilities (similar to the structure of the Colorado Just Transition Advisory Committee). This group would be tasked with visiting communities already hit hard or facing the decline of coal, listening to the concerns raised and the needs articulated, and developing recommendations to feed into the IWG (similar to the Canadian Task Force on Just Transition).

Finally, communities and workers facing the fallout from the closure of a coal mine or coal-fired power plant should not have to navigate the federal bureaucracy to identify and apply for resources. Instead, the new White House office should support and engage directly with community-based “hubs,” which would ideally be housed within locally trusted institutions, such as community colleges or non-profit organizations. The hubs could be funded through a grant program managed by the new office.

All three of these elements and functions are critical to ensuring that the new White House office actually serves the needs of workers and communities.

Codifying into law

The transition away from coal, already well underway, will continue over the next decade or longer. Meanwhile, successful economic diversification and development efforts can require decades of sustained attention and resources. While the IWG established by President Biden’s EO is an important step, it is critical that the broader coordinating office be enshrined in law so that it can provide durable support across multiple administrations and withstand the inevitable shifting political winds.

Fortunately, policymakers are listening. The NEW PROMISE Act introduced by Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D-AZ-01) includes a provision to create a White House Council on Energy Transitions that would serve the role of the coordinating office, conduct outreach to affected communities, and incorporate recommendations from a stakeholder-led advisory board. Unfortunately, as introduced, the Council would focus only on coal-fired power plants and not coal mining communities, unless those mines are directly connected to a plant facing closure. But the bill contains additional important elements of a fair transition—including temporary replacement of lost tax revenue for communities.

The CLEAN Future Act, introduced by leaders of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, includes a provision establishing a White House Office of Energy and Economic Transition to house the coordinating task force and the stakeholder advisory committee. It would also manage grant programs to support communities facing lost tax revenue and to create community hubs to support workers with new resources.

A precedent for a National Coordinating Office with analogous funding levels

The idea of a White House coordinating office is not a new one. For example, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) is housed within the Executive Office of the President and is charged with developing a national strategy on a public-health based approach to reducing substance use disorder and coordinating and aligning budget resources over 16 federal agencies. In addition, the office manages two grant programs to support community-led initiatives.

What would it cost to fund the new coordinating office? Over the last five years, ONDCP has been funded at $18 to $20 million annually, which supports approximately 60 full time equivalent employees (FTEs). The new coordinating office would support the stakeholder-led advisory committee in addition to the interagency task force, so it would likely need to be funded at approximately twice the level of ONDCP. Indeed, Rep. O’Halleran’s bill would authorize $50 million annually through 2035.

But that $50 million per year would only cover the operating budget of new office. As noted above, the new White House office could also manage grant programs for affected communities to supplement and enhance programs available through other agencies—filling gaps like funding and supporting the community hubs. ONDCP offers a precedent for this as well—it currently manages two grant programs (one focused on supporting law enforcement and public health efforts to reduce overdoses, and the other focused on community-led efforts to reduce youth substance use) which together are funded at about $400 million annually.

Another important analogy can be drawn with the Congressionally mandated Base Realignment and Closure process used by the Department of Defense (DOD) to make more efficient use of resources and manage closures of military institutions, which in many cases are significant drivers of local employment and economic activity. Recognizing this, the DOD’s Office of Economic Adjustment, or OEA (newly renamed the Office of Local Defense Community Cooperation) provides assistance to affected communities and serves as a connector to additional resources in other federal agencies. OEA received $280 million over five rounds of closures from 1998 to 2005, and affected communities typically receive $400,000 to $500,000 per year for three to five years (see the Commission’s 2005 report, Appendix S, p.698).

Conclusion

The IWG is an important and welcome first step, but there is much more work to do. And the problem is acute and urgent—the transition away from coal is accelerating and so far proceeding without thoughtful planning for the communities and workers being left behind. I see the establishment by law of a new White House Office of Energy and Economic Transition as a critical down payment on supporting our nation’s coal workers and communities — and eventually a broader set of workers and communities — as we work to reach net zero CO2 emissions by 2050. The Biden administration and Congress must establish this new office to ensure that the long-term coordination and structures will be in place to support workers and communities in the transition to a clean energy economy.

Tom Lohdan/Flickr

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