Workforce Policies Are Crucial to Transitioning Fossil Fuel Communities

Photo: EDF

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

The fourth report in a joint research series by Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Resources for the Future found that very few fossil fuel power plant closures have had plans in mind for former employees, and many communities feel left behind by both old and new energy development. Struggling fossil fuel communities across America have indicated that they’re ready to embrace clean, green energy. But ensuring they have access to new stable jobs and training programs is easier said than done. The U.S. energy industry employed more than 1.9 million workers in 2016, 1.1 million of which work in coal, oil, and gas — their future looks uncertain. 

 Why This Matters: The Biden administration has announced plans to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, phasing out fossil fuels entirely. Jobs in clean energy have been rapidly increasing; employment in solar power grew by 25% in 2016 alone, and wind power employment grew by 35%. Lack of specialized education, financial support, and childcare may keep these workers from taking advantage of new opportunities. Reclamation programs that clean up mine land and natural gas wells have made great progress in bringing the green power directly to the people, but former coal, oil, and gas workers may not have access to those jobs, even when they’re close by. Experts are calling on the federal government to support workforce development and ensure stronger workforce protections to help former fossil fuel workers land on their feet in the new energy economy.

What Works: See Colorado

Experts say that to solve these issues, individual communities must have solutions tailored to them, but planners can start with one successful program in Colorado.  In 2019, Colorado passed a landmark climate bill that pledged to cut the state’s carbon emissions by 90% by 2050. To do this, the state created the Office of Just Transition to support more than 2,000 coal mine and coal-fired power plant workers and their communities. The office partnered with local coal companies to ensure that plant closures accounted for the needs of employees and worked with local skills training programs to help employees find new career paths. Unfortunately, programs and offices like these are few and far between.

Experts say that bringing this kind of planning and foresight to the federal level will help align state transition goals and create standards for how to best transform existing workforces. The new report’s blueprint splits labor policies into a two-pronged approach:

  • Workforce development policies including career services, job training, financial support, research, and ancillary services like childcare.
  • Labor standards for compensation and benefits, unionization, occupational safety, and transition assistance.

The report explains that creating a federal framework for these benefits would help states compile resources and assist in coordination between agencies and economic development efforts. Experts also point out that federal policy could easily support existing transitional coalitions. Already, the federal government and 13 states have partnered to form the Appalachian Regional Commission, which provides the kind of tailored, regional programs that are crucial for just transitions.

It’s not just job training and career opportunities that former fossil fuel communities need. Many of them have suffered economically in recent years, and need more financial support to get back on their feet. Making sure that workers feel represented, fairly compensated, and safe at work must be a priority, the report says. Key policies identified include WARN, which requires warnings before termination, and COBRA which offers bridge healthcare benefits to laid off workers. The report also found that “wrap-around” programs (like affordable childcare) that support not only career transitions but the community as a whole, were crucial in ensuring a stable green energy transition.

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