President-Elect Biden Must Prioritize Coal Communities—and Here’s How

December 2, 2020 | 12:06 pm
Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons
Jeremy Richardson
Former Contributor

President-elect Joe Biden has consistently spoken about the four crises facing the nation: the COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting economic fallout that has pushed millions into unemployment lines, our collective reckoning with racial inequity, and the urgency of addressing climate change. Even though it is early in the presidential transition, Mr. Biden has already announced that former Secretary of State John Kerry will lead climate efforts in the administration, signaling the level of importance of the issue given Mr. Kerry’s deep knowledge and experience with international climate negotiations. Mr. Biden has also chosen Brian Deese to lead the National Economic Council (NEC) within the White House. Deese formerly served as deputy director of the NEC under President Obama where his work included helping save the auto industry and advising the President on environmental and climate issues. Finally, given the centering of environmental justice issues in candidate Biden’s platform, we can expect that these issues will similarly be elevated in the coming weeks. But President-elect Biden and his team must ensure that coal communities are not left behind in the transition to a clean energy economy. Fortunately, they have a ready-made blueprint.

Policy principles abound

Two platform documents in particular offer consensus principles about how to solve the climate crisis while centering workers and communities. The BlueGreen Alliance (a coalition of labor unions and national environmental groups) released its Solidarity for Climate Action platform in the summer of 2019. The platform is significant because it represents strong ambition and new commitments from both labor and environmental interests—groups that sometimes find themselves on opposite sides of the fence.

Second, the Just Transition Fund led the development of the National Economic Transition platform, released in the summer of 2020. This document is similarly consequential precisely because of the coalition of groups that developed it: affected community groups in Appalachia, the West, and tribal nations, along with affected unions. (Full disclosure: I served on the team that developed the platform and was the only representative of a national environmental organization.) The NET platform outlines the pillars of a comprehensive and robust set of priorities for investing in and supporting coal workers and communities as the coal industry continues its inexorable decline.

Where to start?

President Biden should signal on Day One that he is committed to doing right by coal workers and communities. To be clear, I don’t mean simply a compelling speech (although a high-profile message and event to elevate the issue are critical). Mr. Biden must take concrete action immediately after taking office and empower senior appointees to advance the issue. This should take the form of a coordinating body that is charged with driving federal agencies to work together to align programs and goals for the benefit of Coal Country (by which I mean all regions of the country that are dependent on coal mining and coal-fired power plants as economic drivers). This coordinating body should be housed within the White House and work closely with the National Economic Council, which typically implements the President’s economic policy agenda.

One of the reasons the problem of transition is so intractable is that programs and initiatives on economic development and workforce training are spread across at least eight different federal agencies in the alphabet soup of Washington. This coordinating body should house a task force made up of a dedicated senior staff person in each relevant agency whose sole job it is to engage on this issue and work with their counterparts in other agencies.

That alone is a herculean task, as anyone who has worked in government well knows. But even that is insufficient. The new administration must simultaneously recognize that direct engagement with affected communities is critical to success. Importantly, the administration must not approach this with a check-the-box mentality—instead, it must create a space for listening and learning from community expertise, and then using that information and advice to shape its policies and priorities on transition. One key insight that can be named at the start: policies and programs aimed at supporting communities and workers must be flexible and place-based—there is no workable one-size-fits-all approach. The President’s team can also take a page from the Colorado Office of Just Transition, which established an advisory committee made up of affected stakeholders (including labor representatives, utilities, coal communities, affected workers, and disproportionately affected communities) to listen to the concerns of affected communities and develop recommendations based on that input. Canada similarly commissioned a task force to travel to coal communities and host a series of listening sessions. The Biden team should establish an advisory committee made up of affected community stakeholders to develop recommendations, visit affected communities, and truly listen to what they hear.

But listening is only the first step to developing trust. Community leaders have tremendous experience about what works and doesn’t work on the ground. People are rightly skeptical of yet another government program that might as well be more empty promises. The senior advisors that Mr. Biden appoints would do well to listen to these experts and change the way the federal government does business. These community voices should have a strong role in shaping the nation’s economic transition plan for coal communities.

What to do?

Once the new administration sets up these structures, what next? The NET platform offers a blueprint for the wide range of needs that must be addressed to ensure a comprehensive approach to the transition away from coal:

  • Invest in capacity building. In the spirit of listening (as noted above), the government must find ways of investing in local leadership, institutions, and capacity. Government programs and philanthropy alike tend to focus on grant programs for project development or technical assistance but are often unwilling to fund operational costs that keep the lights on and sustain the effort.
  • Protect workers. The people working in coal mines and coal-fired power plants have their lives turned upside down with the closure of those facilities, too often with little advance notice. Given the weak social contract in the United States, these workers need a comprehensive set of supports to weather the storm: 5 years of wage replacement (or wage insurance), continued healthcare, preservation of pensions and retirement contributions, retraining or educational opportunities, job placement assistance, counseling services, and more. And we must ensure that miners with black lung receive the benefits and medical support they have earned.
  • Drive economic development. We must invest in local leadership, entrepreneurs, and small businesses. The federal government must recognize that solutions to the turmoil in coal country must be flexible and place-based—what works in one place won’t work in another. And it is critical to note that successful economic development takes decades and that policymakers must treat these initial investments a down payment.
  • Clean up the mess. The vast environmental damage from the mining and combustion of coal must be cleaned up if communities have any hope of diversifying their economies. This includes mine reclamation (noting that different issues emerge in Appalachia vs. the West and in surface vs. underground mines) and coal ash ponds. With the right incentives and requirements, the cleanup of legacy pollution can create both an environmental win and an economic win, creating jobs for dislocated workers as they evaluate options for the longer term.
  • Invest in infrastructure. The crumbling and missing infrastructure in coal communities is a major impediment to economic development. Things like water infrastructure, broadband access, health care facilities, and more are lacking in these communities, especially those that are more rural. In the Navajo Nation, many homes remain without electricity even as massive transmission lines over their heads transport the electricity generated on Navajo land to cities in the West. The good news is that infrastructure investments create jobs in these communities. The administration must press Congress to prioritize these communities in any opportunity to advance infrastructure legislation and investment.
  • Reform bankruptcy laws. Coal companies continue to shirk their responsibilities to the workers that made them rich and to take advantage of federal loopholes and lax state enforcement to avoid cleaning up the damage to the environment. Dropping these obligations by taking advantage of weak bankruptcy laws is part of their “vulture capitalism” business plan and flatly should not be allowed. We must collectively demand and require more from an industry that does not prioritize the health and safety its workers but constantly touts its contributions to job creation.

Obviously, the Biden administration will not be able to solve all of the problems in Coal Country right out of the gate. But it could and should prioritize early success to demonstrate its commitment to these issues. Setting up the White House office, organizing and coordinating federal agencies, and setting out to listen to affected communities are a great start—as is prioritizing increases in existing federal programs in its first presidential budget request. Failing Congressional appropriations, the Biden administration can use executive authority to drive specific programs and investments, building on and expanding what President Obama did with the POWER Initiative.

But ultimately Congress will have to step up and deliver real solutions for coal communities instead of false rhetoric about restoring coal jobs. Many if not all of these priorities require Congressional authorization and, most importantly, appropriations. A few tens of millions of dollars won’t cut it—we need bold and visionary investments in the future of these communities. After sacrificing for generations for the good of the nation, coal communities, workers, and their families are ready to cash in the IOU.

A commitment to coal communities

Solving this problem of large numbers of people at risk of being left behind in the transition to a clean energy economy is not just the right thing to do for people and families who have sacrificed for generations to keep the lights on—it is a necessary set of investments to ensure that the federal climate solutions we have been fighting for will be durable over time. Simply put, more people must be bought into the need for action in order to make robust climate policies stick. This means showing a real commitment to workers and communities by demonstrating real progress in a short time. President-elect Biden has consistently talked about the potential for action on climate change to create domestic union jobs, and it’s time to put that commitment into action. It won’t be easy. Let’s get to work.