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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.

As coal dies, the US has no plan to help the communities left behind

By Emily Pontecorvo - Grist, March 3, 2021

Here are two tales of the energy transition unfolding in coal country, USA.

In late 2019, Pacificorp, an electric utility that operates in six Western states, told Wyoming regulators it wanted to shut down several of its coal-fired power plants early and replace them with wind and solar power and battery storage. It said this plan would save customers hundreds of millions of dollars on their electric bills and promised to work with local leaders on transition plans for workers and communities affected by the closures.

Wyoming, a state whose economy relies significantly on coal mining and coal power, went on the defensive. State lawmakers had already passed a law requiring coal plant owners to search for a buyer before being allowed to close a plant. Now, with support from the governor, regulators ordered an unprecedented investigation to scrutinize Pacificorp’s analysis and conclusions. Ultimately they determined the plan was deficient — that the company had not adequately considered allowing the coal plants to stay open or installing technology to capture the plants’ carbon emissions.

Oil Industry Inflates Job Impact From Biden’s New Pause on Drilling on Federal Lands

By Nick Cunningham - DeSmog, January 27, 2021

On Wednesday, President Biden signed an executive order directing his Department of Interior to hit pause on entering new leases for oil and gas drilling on federal lands, the latest in a string of climate-related directives aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

On the campaign trail, then-candidate Joe Biden proposed a ban on new leases on public lands, a pledge the Trump campaign falsely claimed would “end fracking.” After Biden’s victory, a coalition of nearly 600 organizations from western states wrote a letter in December to the president-elect, urging him to follow through on his promise. The executive order begins that process.

About 25 percent of U.S. fossil fuel production came from federal lands over the past decade. Perhaps unsurprisingly, federal lands account for roughly 24 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, stemming from the production of oil, gas, and coal, along with the methane released during the extraction process, and the combustion of those fuels, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

A big slice of that comes from coal, an industry that has been in decline for years. But drilling for oil and gas in the U.S. has increased dramatically in recent years, thanks in large part to fracking. While the oil industry quickly applauded the Biden administration for rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, it was incensed that he would halt new drilling leases on federal lands.

Economic Development Policies to Enable Fairness for Workers and Communities in Transition

By Daniel Raimi, Wesley Look, Molly Robertson, and Jake Higdon - Resources for the Future, August 11, 2020

Communities that are heavily dependent on fossil fuel–related economic activity—including the production of coal, oil, and natural gas and the transformation and consumption of these fuels—would experience substantial effects of a societal shift away from such fuels. This report reviews a range of federal economic development policies and programs that may help affected workers and communities thrive in a low-emissions future. Future reports in this series will examine other tools (e.g., workforce development policy, energy and environmental policy, infrastructure policy) that can play a role in supporting affected workers and communities.

Here, we focus on programs and policies that explicitly seek to support local economic development. In particular, we examine programs led by the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development, the Department of Interior’s Secure Rural Schools, the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration, the Department of Defense’s Office of Economic Adjustment, and the Small Business Administration, plus emerging efforts in Colorado and New Mexico.

For ease of analysis, we group economic development programs into two broad categories: those that target local or regional economies historically driven by natural resource development (e.g., coal, agriculture, timber) and programs with a broader geographic and/or economic scope.

We identify three major mechanisms through which the federal government delivers support:

  • Capacity building involves programs that provide technical assistance, planning, or research to support local economic development efforts. Such programs can be effective tools to reduce knowledge gaps and increase human capital and productivity. In a concise summary, Wharton (1958) describes this approach as “helping people help themselves.”
  • Financial support to public and community organizations helps public or quasi-public organizations deliver local economic development programming. This support may be direct (e.g., grants or loans) or indirect (e.g., loan guarantees) and can enhance the human and physical capital stock (including infrastructure) in a community.
  • Financial support to private, for-profit firms may similarly be direct or indirect; the federal government may also offer tax credits, which are not applicable to public entities because they do not pay taxes. These programs are often intended to support small businesses that may struggle to access affordable borrowing, or to jump-start local businesses in sectors that policymakers believe hold promise for future prosperity.

Read the text (PDF).

Coal Plant Communities Seek a Just Economic Transition

By Lilli Ambort - Institute for Local Self-Reliance, August 7, 2020

Xcel Energy’s announcement that the Sherburne County Generating Station (Sherco) in Becker, Minn. will close by 2030 did not come as a surprise, but for local residents, the uncertainty of the city’s economic future has become a pervasive issue. Sherco is one of the largest coal-powered generating stations in the state, with three boilers and a total capacity of 2,238 megawatts. The Sherco power plant provides 301 jobs and a huge portion of the small city’s tax base. Sherburne County Commissioner Tim Dolan remarks “At 77% [of the City’s tax base], it’s probably easier to point to stuff [Sherco] didn’t pay for. It’s a much shorter list.”

Xcel Energy plans to replace two of the coal boilers with a 786 megawatt gas plant that will provide roughly 30 permanent jobs. Environmentally, the closure of coal plants drastically reduces carbon emissions and air pollution (but the addition of a gas plant at Sherco is questionable). Economically, Becker and many cities like it are left scrambling, looking for alternative forms of employment and tax revenue.

As gas dethrones coal generation as the ruler of the U.S. power sector, the cost of running coal power plants becomes economically uncompetitive. Eventually, gas may be surpassed by renewable energy, with solar and wind expected to be the fastest growing source of electricity generation for the next two years. For communities that rely on coal plants for tax revenue and jobs, the early closure of these plants spells trouble even as it reduces pollution and saves electric customers money. The transition away from fossil fuels provides new economic opportunities, but the question becomes whether these clean energy opportunities can replace lost income and tax revenue from coal generation plants.

Despite the news about the Sherco plant, Becker city officials remain hopeful for new economic opportunities that may come from the plant closure. Becker has attracted the attention of Google, which is looking to build a $600 million data center next to Sherco, potentially generating 2,000 short-term construction jobs and 50 permanent jobs. The data center would be powered by two wind power projects. While the Google project is still up in the air, Northern Metal Recycling is already moving to build a metal recycling plant next to Sherco, with the potential to create about 150 jobs in Becker. The possibility of new jobs, new people, and new tax revenue excites residents, and for now, these new developments do not completely replace all the jobs and tax revenue lost from the closure of Sherco, but they provide some economic hope. Unfortunately, other communities across the U.S. have not been as lucky, left with little to no other options for economic revitalization after coal plant closures.

Prison Drinking Water and Wastewater Pollution Threaten Environmental Safety Nationwide

By John E. Dannenberg - Prison Legal News, November 15, 2017

Aging infrastructure concerns are not limited to America's highways, bridges and dams. Today, crumbling, overcrowded prisons and jails nationwide are bursting at the seams -- literally -- leaking environmentally dangerous effluents not just inside prisons, but also into local rivers, water tables and community water supplies. Because prisons are inherently detested and ignored institutions, the hidden menace of pollution from them has stayed below the radar. In this report, PLN exposes the magnitude and extent of the problem from data collected over the past several years from seventeen states.

Alabama

The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) has been ignoring complaints of wastewater pollution from its prisons since 1991. Back then, the problem was limited to leaking sewage from the St. Clair prison. Although the Alabama Legislature promised to provide the $2.3 million needed to build a new wastewater treatment plant that would match St. Clair's vastly expanded population, no money has been appropriated.

Today, the problem has grown statewide and includes pollution from ADOC's Draper, Elmore, Fountain/Holman, Limestone prisons and the Farcquhar Cattle Ranch and Red Eagle Honor Farm. The problem has drawn the ire of the private watchdog group, Black Warrior Riverkeeper (BWR) and of the state Attorney General (AG), both of whom have filed lawsuits against ADOC. The AG's office claims ADOC is violating the Alabama Water Pollution Control Act (Act) by dumping raw sewage into Little Canoe Creek, from which it flows into the Coosa River. The AG has demanded that ADOC fix the problems and pay fines for the damage they have caused. All parties acknowledge that the problems stem from ADOC's doubling of its population to 28,000, while the wastewater treatment facilities were designed for less than half that number.

The environmental damage is huge. ADOC is pumping extremely high levels of toxic ammonia, fecal coliform, viruses, and parasites into local streams and rivers. When raw sewage hits clean water, it sucks up the available dissolved oxygen to aid decomposition. But in so doing, it asphyxiates aquatic plants and animals that depend on that oxygen.
Telltale disaster signs include rising water temperatures and the appearance of algae blooms. The pollution renders public waterways unfit for human recreation as well.

BWR notes in its suit that Donaldson State Prison has committed 1,060 violations of the Clean Water Act since 1999, dumping raw sewage into Big Branch and Valley creeks, and thence into the Black Warrior River. BWR seeks fines for the violations, which could range from $100 to $25,000 each. Peak overflows were documented at 808,000 gallons in just one day, which isn't surprising for a wastewater treatment plant designed to handle a maximum of 270,000 gallons per day. Donaldson, designed to hold only 990 prisoners, has 1,500 today.

One path to reformation was found in turning over wastewater treatment to privately-run local community water treatment districts. Donaldson came into compliance with its wastewater permit after contracting with Alabama Utility Services in 2005. Limestone and other ADOC prisons are now seeking privatization solutions.

Going to Extremes: The Anti-Government Extremism Behind the Growing Movement to Seize America’s Public Lands

By staff - Center for Western Priorities, July 7, 2016

The 2016 armed standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon provided the American public with a ringside seat to a disturbing trend on U.S. public lands: extremist and militia groups using America’s national forests, parks, monuments, and wildlife refuges to advance their anti-government beliefs.

But these far right-wing organizations are not operating in a vacuum. To the contrary, the armed insurrection in Oregon and Nevada before—led by Ammon Bundy and the Bundy family—share the same foundations as land transfer schemes promoted by some elected leaders in states throughout the West. Both rely upon a philosophy based in vehement anti-government ideologies, both have connections to organizations that espouse armed resistance, both employ pseudo-legal theories to justify their actions, and both use scholarly support from conspiracy theorists and discredited academics.

Our nation’s parks and network of public lands are one of our finest democratic achievements. Americans see management of public lands as one of the things our government does best. But over the last four years, politicians and special interest groups in 11 Western states and in Congress have tried to seize many of these places and turn them over to state and private control.

The elected officials supporting state seizure of U.S. public lands couch their arguments carefully, but our research shows their close associations to extreme individuals, groups, and ideology characterized by antigovernment paranoia and a pseudo-legal approach to the Constitution.

Since the beginning of 2015, 54 land seizure bills have been introduced into Western states, including Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. At least 22 state legislators with direct connections to anti-government ideologies or extremist groups were the primary sponsors on 29 of those bills.

Sitting at the hub of the movement and functioning as the bridge between extremism and the mainstream political debate are Utah Rep. Ken Ivory, Montana Sen. Jennifer Fielder, and their non-profit, the American Lands Council. A close analysis of Rep. Ivory and Sen. Fielder’s activities, and those of other active land seizure proponents at the state level, shows how these efforts are a functional part of an aggressive anti-government movement that will grow more potent if reasonable Americans don’t take action.

Read the report (PDF).

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