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Earth Justice

What It Will Take to Build a Broad-Based Movement for a Just Transition: Environmental and labor organizers reflect on hard-won lessons

Images and words by David Bacon - Sierra, August 31, 2022

In 2020, Washington State passed the Climate Commitment Act, and when it went into effect on January 1, 2022, Rosalinda Guillen was appointed to its Environmental Justice Council. The appointment recognized her role as one of Washington's leading advocates for farmworkers and rural communities.

Guillen directs Community2Community Development, a women-led group encouraging farmworker cooperatives and defending labor rights. She has a long history as a farm labor organizer and in 2013 helped form a new independent union for farmworkers, Familias Unidas por la Justicia. Guillen agreed to serve on the council but with reservations. She feared that the law's implementation would be dominated by some of the state's most powerful industries: fossil fuels and agriculture. 

"Its market-based approach focuses too much on offsets,” she says. “Allowing polluting corporations to pay to continue to pollute is a backward step in achieving equity for rural people living in poverty for generations." Just as important to her, however, is that while the law provides funding for projects in pollution-impacted communities, it doesn't look at the needs of workers displaced by the changes that will occur as the production and use of fossil fuels is reduced.

The impact of that reduction won't affect just workers in oil refineries but farmworkers as well. "The ag industry is part of the problem, not just the fossil fuel industry," Guillen says. "They're tied together. Ag's monocrop system impacts the ecological balance through the use of pesticides, the pollution of rivers and clearing forests. As farmworkers, this law has everything to do with our miserable wages, our insecure jobs, and even how long we'll live. The average farmworker only lives to 49 years old, and displacement will make peoples' lives even shorter." 

The key to building working-class support for reducing carbon emissions, she believes, is a commitment from political leaders and the environmental and labor movements that working-class communities will not be made to pay for the transition to a carbon-free economy with job losses and increased poverty. But the difficulties in building that alliance and gaining such a commitment were evident in the defeat of an earlier Washington State initiative, and the fact that the Climate Commitment Act lacked the protections that initiative sought to put in place. 

In Washington State fields, at California oil refineries, and amid local campaigns around the country, this is the big strategic question in coalition building between the labor and environmental movements: Who will pay the cost of transitioning to a green economy? 

Some workers and unions see the danger of climate change as a remote problem, compared with the immediate loss of jobs and wages. Others believe that climate change is an urgent crisis and that government policy should protect jobs and wages as a transition to a fossil-fuel-free economy takes place. Many environmental justice groups also believe that working-class communities, especially communities of color, should not have to shoulder the cost of a crisis they did not create. And in the background, always, are efforts by industry to minimize the danger of climate change and avoid paying the cost of stopping it. 

Reclaiming Hydrogen for a Renewable Future: Distinguishing Fossil Fuel Industry Spin from Zero-Emission Solutions

By Sasan Saadat and Sara Gersen - Earth Justice, August 2021

To chart a course toward a safer climate and more habitable planet, we must rapidly reduce emissions of greenhouse gases across our society. The biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions is the burning of fossil fuels. Consequently, the clearest path to reducing emissions is to switch from fossil fuels to renewable, zero-emission energy in our transportation, buildings, and power generation (sectors that are collectively responsible for about 75% of United States’ greenhouse gas emissions). This transition would make significant strides in eliminating the devastating public health impacts of pollution throughout the life cycle of fossil fuels—pollution that is most severely concentrated in Black, Brown, Indigenous, and poor communities. A just transition will also require careful policy design and meaningful engagement from frontline communities. Renewable energy, energy efficiency, and electrification are zero-emission solutions that eliminate both greenhouse gases and health-harming air pollution. To meet the scale and urgency of the climate crisis will require deployment of renewable resources on an unprecedented scale— ultimately achieving 100% clean power generation—and a complete transition to efficient, electric models for things like household appliances and cars.

As we electrify everything that can feasibly plug into a clean power grid, “green hydrogen” is a promising tool for transitioning to renewable energy in sectors that lack a viable route to direct electrification. Green hydrogen is hydrogen produced by using 100% renewable electricity to split water molecules.

To understand the potential role of green hydrogen, consider the challenges of cutting climate pollution from one hard-to-electrify sector: maritime shipping. Maritime travel is difficult to decarbonize because battery-powered ocean-going vessels will not be able to handle long-haul voyages across the ocean, at least for the foreseeable future. The hope for green hydrogen is that it may store energy from clean electric resources like wind and solar in a fuel that could be used to propel large, long-haul ships. This vision is at least a decade away from reality, if it overcomes the challenges to cost-effective production and efficient on-vessel storage. Still, it offers a path to displacing the highly polluting bunker fuel currently relied on to move much of the world’s goods across oceans.

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North Dakota, Using Taxpayer Funds, Bailed Out Oil and Gas Companies by Plugging Abandoned Wells

By Nicholas Kusnetz - Inside Climate News, May 23, 2021

The bailout, environmentalists say, raises bigger questions about who will pay, in an energy transition, to close off the nation’s millions of aging wells.

When North Dakota directed more than $66 million in federal pandemic relief funds to clean up old oil and gas wells last year, it seemed like the type of program everyone could get behind. The money would plug hundreds of abandoned wells and restore the often-polluted land surrounding them, and in the process would employ oilfield workers who had been furloughed after prices crashed.

The program largely accomplished those goals. But some environmental advocates say it achieved another they didn’t expect: It bailed out dozens of small to mid-sized oil companies, relieving them of their responsibility to pay for cleaning up their own wells by using taxpayer money instead.

Oil drillers are generally required to plug their wells after they’re done producing crude. But in practice, companies are often able to defer that responsibility for years or decades. Larger companies often sell older wells to smaller ones, which sometimes go bankrupt, leaving the wells with no owner.

These “orphaned wells” become the responsibility of the federal or state governments, depending on where they were drilled. While oil companies are required to post bonds or other financial assurance to pay for plugging them, in reality those bonds cover only a tiny fraction of the costs, leaving taxpayers on the hook. One estimate, by the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a financial think tank, found that those bonds cover only a tiny fraction of the expected costs of cleaning up the nation’s oil and gas wells.

But in North Dakota, it turned out that most of the wells the state plugged were not truly orphaned, but had solvent owners. After the industry warned last year that the pandemic-driven oil-crash was threatening its finances, state regulators stepped in, assumed ownership of more than 300 wells, and used CARES Act funds to plug them, meaning the companies avoided paying anything themselves.

“What happened was a bunch of people got a free ride,” said Scott Skokos, executive director of the Dakota Resource Council, a grassroots environmental group in the state.

EPA Moves To Gut Agricultural Worker Protection Standards

By Earth Justice - Common Dreams, December 14, 2017

Today, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it will revise crucial protections for more than two million farm workers and pesticide applicators by the federal Agricultural Worker Protection Standard (WPS) and the Certification of Pesticide Applicators (CPA) rule.

The WPS establishes a minimum age of 18 for workers who mix, load, and apply pesticides; increases the frequency of worker safety training from once every five years to every year; improves the content and quality of worker safety trainings; and provides anti-retaliation protections and the right of a farm worker to request pesticide-application information via a designated representative.

The EPA also announced the reconsideration of the minimum age requirements established by the Certification of Pesticide Applicators (CPA) rule, which sets training and certification requirements for Restricted Use Pesticides (RUPs), the most toxic chemicals in the market. There are roughly half a million child farm workers in the United States.

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