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Utility Workers Union and UCS estimate costs to transition U.S. coal miners and power plant workers in joint report

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, May 12, 2021

Hard on the heels of the April statement by the United Mine Workers Union, Preserving Coal Country: Keeping America’s coal miners, families and communities whole in an era of global energy transition, the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) jointly released a report with the Union of Concerned Scientists on May 4: Supporting the Nation’s Coal Workers and Communities in a Changing Energy Landscape. This report is described as “a call to action for thoughtful and intentional planning and comprehensive support for coal-dependent workers and communities across the nation.” The report estimates that in 2019, there were 52,804 workers in coal mining and 37,071 people employed at coal-fired power plants – and that eventually all will lose their jobs as coal gives way to cleaner energy sources. Like the United Mine Workers, the report acknowledges that the energy shift is already underway, and “rather than offer false hope for reinvigorated coal markets, 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.”

Specifically, the report calls for a minimum level of support for workers of five years of wage replacement, health coverage, continued employer contributions to retirement funds or pension plans, and tuition and job placement assistance. The cost estimates of such supports are pegged at $33 billion over 25 years and $83 billion over 15 years —and do not factor in additional costs such as health benefits for workers suffering black lung disease, or mine clean-up costs. The report states: “we must ensure that coal companies and utilities are held liable for the costs to the greatest extent possible before saddling taxpayers with the bill.” Neither do the cost estimates include the recognized needs for community supports such as programs to diversify the economies, or support to ensure that essential services such as fire, police and education are supported, despite the diminished tax base. 

The report points to the precedents set by Canada’s Task Force on Just Transition for Canadian Coal Power Workers and Communities ( 2018), the German Commission on Growth, Structural Change and Employment (2019), as well as the New Mexico Energy Transition Act 2019 and the Colorado Just Transition Action Plan in 2020. The 12-page report, Supporting the Nation’s Coal Workers and Communities in a Changing Energy Landscape was accompanied by a Technical Report, and summarized in a UCS Blog which highlights the situation in Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota. A 2018 report from UCS Soot to Solar also examined Illinois.

Regenerative & Just 100% Policy Building Blocks Released by Experts from Impacted Communities

By Aiko Schaefer - 100% Network, January 21, 2020

The 100% Network launched a new effort to bring forward and coalesce the expertise from frontline communities into the Comprehensive Building Blocks for a Regenerative and Just 100% Policy. This groundbreaking and extensive document lays out the components of an 100% policy that centers equity and justice. Read the full report here.

Last year 100% Network members who are leading experts from and accountable to black, indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) and frontline communities embarked on a collective effort to detail the components of an ideal 100% policy. The creation of this 90-page document was an opportunity to bring the expertise of their communities together.

The Building Blocks document was designed primarily for frontline organizations looking to develop and implement their own local policies with a justice framework. Secondly, is to build alignment with environmental organizations and intermediary groups that are engaged in developing and advocating for 100% policies. The overall goals of the project are to:

  • Build the capacity of BIPOC frontline public policy advocates, so that impacted community groups who are leading, working to shape or just getting started on 100% policy discussions have information on what should be included to make a policy more equitable, inclusive and just
  • Align around frontline, community-led solutions and leadership, and create a shared analysis and understanding of what it will take to meet our vision for 100% just, equitable renewable energy.
  • Create a resource to help ensure equity-based policy components are both integrated and prioritized within renewable energy/energy efficiency policies. 
  • Build relationships across the movement between frontline, green, and intermediary organizations to create space for the discourse and trust-building necessary to move collaboration forward on 100% equitable, renewable energy policies. 

Doing It Right: Colstrip's Bright Future With Cleanup

By staff - Northern Plains Research Council and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1638, July 2018

In 2018, Northern Plains Research Council partnered with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local union 1638 to conduct a research study into the job creation potential of coal ash pond cleanup in Colstrip, Montana.

Because coal ash pond closure and associated groundwater remediation is only now becoming a priority for power plants, there are many unanswered questions about the size and nature of the workforce needed to do it right. This study aims to shed light on some of the cleanup work being done now around the country and what that might mean for the Colstrip workforce and community.

From the executive summary: Coal ash waste is polluting the groundwater in Colstrip, but cleaning it up could provide many jobs and other economic benefits while protecting community health.

This study was conducted to analyze the job-creation potential of cleaning up the groundwater in Colstrip, Montana, that has been severely contaminated from leaking impoundments meant to store the coal ash from the power plants (Colstrip Units 1, 2, 3 and 4). Unless remediated, this contamination poses a major threat to public health, livestock operations, and the environment for decades.

Communities benefit from coal ash pond cleanup but the positive impacts of cleanup can vary widely depending on the remediation approach followed. Certain strategies like excavating coal ash ponds and actively treating wastewater lead to more jobs, stabilized property values, and effective groundwater cleanup while others accomplish only the bare minimum for legal compliance.

This study demonstrates that, with the right cleanup strategies, job creation and environmental protection can go hand-in-hand, securing the future of the community as a whole.

Read the text (PDF).

Ecosocialism or Bust

By Thea Riofrancos, Robert Shaw, Will Speck - Jacobin, April 20, 2018

At this past February’s “Alternative Models of Ownership Conference” hosted by the Labour Party in London, party leader Jeremy Corbyn asserted the centrality of energy policy to his vision of socialism: “The challenge of climate change requires us to radically shift the way we organize our economy.” He outlined a radical vision of an energy system powered by wind and solar, organized as a decentralized grid, democratically controlled by the communities that rely on it, and — crucially — publicly owned.

Corbyn’s declaration laid out an exciting and ambitious vision of how socialists can press on climate change. But it also served as a reminder that socialists need to get serious about the politics of energy — lest disaster capitalism continue to shape energy policy. We must get involved in concrete campaigns to transform how energy is governed and push for a just transition to renewable sources. The terrain of energy politics is multifaceted, comprising the production, transformation, distribution, and consumption of energy. Energy sources such as coal, oil, natural gas, biomass, hydropower, sunlight, and wind each entail distinct social and environmental costs related to their extraction or capture, and their subsequent transformation into usable electricity. Electrical grids connect energy production and transformation to its sites of consumption. Grids encompass both the high-voltage transmission of electricity from where it’s generated to population centers, and the direct distribution of that electricity to homes and businesses. In the US, beginning in the early 1990s, energy deregulation encouraged a separation in ownership between energy generation and its distribution, resulting in an increasingly complex set of state-level markets of competing energy providers, which in turn sell energy to the private, public, or cooperatively owned utilities.

Reclaiming Public Services: How cities and citizens are turning back privatisation

Edited by Satoko Kishimoto and Olivier Petitjean - Transnational Institute, June 2017

You would be forgiven, especially if you live in Europe, to think that public services are by nature expensive, inefficient, maybe even somewhat outdated, and that reforming them to adapt to new challenges is difficult. It would seem natural to assume – because this is what most politicians, media and so-called experts tell us continuously – that we, as citizens and users, should resign ourselves to paying ever higher tariffs for services of an ever lower standard, and that service workers have no choice but to accept ever more degraded conditions. It would seem that private companies will inevitably play an ever larger role in the provision of public services, because everything has a price, because politicians have lost sight of the common good and citizens are only interested in their own individual pursuits.

This book, however, tells a completely different story. Sometimes it may feel as though we are living in a time when profit and austerity are our only horizons. In reality, below the radar, thousands of politicians, public officials, workers and unions, and social movements are working to reclaim or create effective public services that address the basic needs of people and respond to our social, environmental and climate challenges. They do this most often at the local level. Our research shows there have been at least 835 examples of (re)municipalisation of public services worldwide in recent years, some of them involving several cities. In total there have been more than 1600 cities in 45 countries involved in (re)municipalisation. And these (re)municipalisations generally succeed-ed in bringing down costs and tariffs, improving conditions for workers and boosting service quality, while ensuring greater transparency and accountability.

Read the text (PDF).

Just Transition: Joint Proposal of PG&E, Friends of the Earth, NRDC, IBEW Local 1245, et. al. to Retire Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant

By Various - June 20, 2016

This document is an example of an actual "Just Transition" agreement hammered out through negotiations after years of organizing by environmental organizations and dialog with unions. While it's no doubt far from perfect, it still represents a starting point for similar campaigns elsewhere, and like a union contract, it's the product of negotiations following struggle. To secure better deals, the unions and ecological movements need to keep organizing and building their collective power.

Read the report (PDF).

Enron Played Central Role in California Energy Crisis

Greg Palast and Robert Bryce interviewed by Amy Goodman - Democracy Now, May 16, 2006

[in 2001] California was plunged into an unprecedented energy crisis. Rolling blackouts shut down parts of the state. Power bills soared. It turned out that at the center of the crisis was Enron — although the company’s role wasn’t fully understood at the time. We play excerpts of audiotapes that proved Enron asked power companies to take plants offline at the height of the California energy crisis–in order to make more money.

AMY GOODMAN: In California, the state’s former governor Gray Davis praised the jury for convicting Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling. David said, quote, "Given the way Enron ripped off California, I think the jury did an excellent job. I take some solace in the fact that Lay and Skilling be will send some time in prison," he said. Six years ago, California was plunged into an unprecedented energy crisis, rolling blackouts shut down parts of the state, power bills soared. It turned out that at the center of the crisis was Enron, although the company’s role wasn’t fully understood at the time. Two years ago, lawyers involved in a lawsuit in Washington state obtained audio tapes that proved Enron asked power companies to take plants offline at the height of the California energy crisis, in order to make more money. In one taped phone call, an Enron employee celebrated the fact that a massive forest fire had shut down a transmission line carrying energy into California, causing the price of energy to rise.

California's Energy Crisis: Structural adjustment - American style

California's Energy Crisis: Power to the People?

By Jessie Muldoon and Todd Chretien - International Socialist Review, February-March 2001

THE LIGHTS are out in California. Rolling blackouts have cut electricity to millions. Only this time, it's not the San Andreas Fault that's to blame. It's the free market.

A year ago, electricity cost roughly 3.5 cents per kilowatt-hour on the wholesale market. Today, that same amount costs upward of 40 cents. Why? Back in 1996, energy companies and big businesses showered millions of dollars on California politicians, convincing them to vote unanimously to "deregulate" the publicly owned and managed state electrical utility system. The state would no longer set prices and supervise the industry. In exchange, the energy companies promised Californians lower prices and cleaner power brought on by free-market competition.

Instead, a handful of energy profiteers have made a killing, while millions of Californians suffer higher rates and the harmful effects of power outages. The results of the power crunch have been devastating to ordinary people. Nathaniel Goodwin, who is 73, has emphysema and needs an electrical oxygen concentrator to breathe. As rolling blackouts spread across California, he stocked up on crackers and peanut butter, arranged for a battery-powered backup, and hoped for the best. "I live by myself and I've got to have my oxygen," he told a reporter.1

"We've got elderly folks with arthritis who have to have heat. Many of them have medical devices they need to live and no one knows what will happen when the electricity is turned off," said Marie Harrison, a community leader in the Bay View Hunters Point district of San Francisco, which is predominantly Black.2

The utility companies claim that hospitals and fire stations will not be affected by the blackouts, but two hospitals--Valley Convalescent Hospital in Watsonville and Community Medical Centers in Fresno--suffered outages. Across the state, workers are paying the price for deregulation. California Steel Industries of Fontana, the largest steel plant on the West Coast, sent 400 workers home without pay because of skyrocketing electrical costs. The Miller Brewing Company plant in Irwindale laid off its whole workforce for a week without pay.3

Schools have lost power or have been forced to cut back on heat, leaving tens of thousands of children shivering in the dark. Contrary to popular belief, temperatures during California winters often hover between 40 and 50 degrees, and few buildings have proper insulation. Meanwhile, the crisis shut down some of California's biggest oil refineries, which could quickly lead to a substantial hike in prices at the pumps. A dairy farmer put it this way: "This problem has the potential to be substantially more devastating than any earthquake we've seen."4

One economist estimated that the state lost $1.7 billion in wages, sales, and productivity in just one week of blackouts.5 And there is no end in sight. The Independent System Operator (ISO), the state-appointed agency that controls the California power grid, warned that Californians should get used to rolling blackouts for at least the next two years.6

This article explores how deregulation and the free market are behind the crisis, and why we should fight for public power as a solution.

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