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Can a Just Transition Change Appalachia’s Balance of Power?

By Morgan Hickory and Lydia Patton - Science for the People, Summer 2020

From Volume 23, number 2, People’s Green New Deal

Encuentre una traducción de este artículo en español en nuestro sitio web.

Mining and Nurses

“Biggest thing we got around here is that everything is based off coal. I’m not down on coal, like I said, I’m grateful for it, I love it, and whoever else still wants to do it, more power to you. I’ll back you 100 percent. But we have to find something else around here to support our economy. Mining and nurses the only two things you got. If you don’t put some other type of industrial occupation around here, something that’s not based on coal, then our economy is going to be destroyed. There’s literally nothing left for you to do. Like I said, it’s fast food, making minimum wage, mining, or nursing.”

--David Lee Brett, Jr., former coal miner in Harlan County, KY

A new generation of progressive thinkers, from slightly left-of-center Democrats to committed socialists, is proposing federal legislation for a sweeping economic transition away from fossil fuels. Termed the Green New Deal (GND), this proposal promises to phase fossil fuel industries out of existence and introduce well-paid alternatives for workers in these industries. Any federal project that begins as a policy idea, even if it is enacted by Congress, will encounter challenges on the ground. This is especially true in places like Appalachia, where highly localized systems of power, in place for decades or even centuries, funnel resources into channels controlled by the existing ruling class. Federal injections of money are a periodic occurrence in Central Appalachia, whether distributed through New Deal job creation and infrastructure programs in the 1930s or through humanitarian aid efforts initiated by the War on Poverty in the 1960s.1 Local apex families and entrenched government systems have adapted to take advantage of and benefit from extractive industries such coal. As such, the GND risks floundering in Appalachia if robust local knowledge about its people and politics is not built into the conception and execution of a People’s Green New Deal (PGND).

National Economic Transition Platform: A Visionary Proposal for an Equitable Future

By staff - Just Transition Fund, Summer 2020

Workers and families affected by the changing coal economy are facing a profound crisis complicated by unique difficulties. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and economic decline, coal facility closures, layoffs, and cuts to vital services were devastating to people and places dependent on the coal economy—many of whom are still struggling following earlier economic declines, the loss of manufacturing jobs, or inequality and widespread poverty.

For low-income communities and communities of color already disproportionately left behind by the status quo, the need for equitable and inclusive economic growth is vital. But, now, with COVID-19, these unique challenges are exacerbated. The closure of even more coal facilities is accelerated, giving communities little time to plan for the disappearance of their largest employer and the erosion of the tax base, which provides critical funding for public services, local education, and health care systems.

Read the text (PDF).

Still Digging: G20 Governments Continue to Finance the Climate Crisis

By Bronwen Tucker and Kate DeAngelis - Oil Change International and Friends of the Earth - May 2020

In 2015, governments around the world committed to hold global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius (°C) and to strive to limit warming to 1.5°C by adopting the Paris Agreement. This analysis shows that since the Paris Agreement was made, G20 countries have acted directly counter to it by providing at least USD 77 billion a year in finance for oil, gas, and coal projects through their international public finance institutions. These countries provided more than three times as much support for fossil fuels as for clean energy.

With the health and livelihoods of billions at immediate risk from COVID-19, governments around the world are preparing public spending packages of a magnitude they previously deemed unthinkable. In normal times, development finance institutions (DFIs), export credit agencies (ECAs), and multilateral development banks (MDBs) already had an outsized impact on the overall energy landscape and more capacity than their private sector peers to act on the climate crisis. In the current moment, their potential influence has multiplied, and it is imperative that they change course. The fossil fuel sector was showing long-term signs of systemic decline before COVID-19 and has been quick to seize on this crisis with requests for massive subsidies and bailouts.1 We cannot afford for the wave of public finance that is being prepared for relief and recovery efforts to prop up the fossil fuel industry as it has in the past. Business as usual would exacerbate the next crisis— the climate crisis—that is already on our doorstep.

Read the report (PDF).

Bargaining Electric Power: Miners, Blackouts, and the Politics of Illumination in the United States, 1965-1979

By Trish Kahle - Journal of Energy History, December 12, 2019

This article examines how the perils conjured by blackouts in American cities after 1965 became interpreted as a key point of political and bargaining leverage for the nation’s coal miners. The anxieties provoked by these blackouts –sexual deviance, urban unrest, spoiled food, lost productivity, and Cold War incursions– pointed to a broader crisis of American political and social life driven by the massive social changes which had taken place since the end of the Second World War. As the United States entered the 1970s, a long-range energy crisis appeared not only to secure the future of the once-imperiled coal industry in the United States, but also allowed miners to recast their union as a bedrock of national security rather than as one of the main sources of the nation’s labor unrest.

Evoking the threat of coerced darkness in the modern American home which had been designed for bright illumination, they also pointed to the figurative darkness of the coal mining workscape, described by one miner as “beating the devil at a game of hell”: the constant threat of black lung, disablement, and death. A form of collective bargaining leverage thus opened up a broader debate: how, given the deadly work of coal extraction, could energy be produced in a democratic society that guaranteed the right to life, liberty, property, and, increasingly, light? Did “one man” have to “die every day” to keep the nation’s lights on? This paper argues that miners used the framework of lights and darknesses to contend that mines must be made safe and energy democratized in order to stabilize the energy regime in crisis. In so doing, they framed a new politics of illumination which allowed them to navigate a new terrain of collective action.

Read the text (PDF).

Fossil Futures: The Canada Pension Plan's Failure to Respect the 1.5-degree Celsius Limit

By James K. Rowe, Steph Glanzmann, Jessica Dempsey and Zoë Yunker - Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, November 2019

THE WORLD’S LARGEST PENSION FUNDS comprise over half of global investment capital. The Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB) manages one of the country’s largest pools of investments, at $400 billion. How pension funds choose to invest has significant bearing on how we collectively address the climate emergency and the needed energy transition away from fossil fuels. In this report we ask: Is the CPPIB investing with the 1.5-degree Celsius limit on global average temperature rise in mind?

In April 2016, Canada was among 195 countries that signed the Paris Agreement, committing to “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius.”

Our major finding is that the CPPIB is not investing with the 1.5-degree limit in mind. Within its public equities portfolio, it has over $4 billion invested in the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel reserve holders (oil, gas and coal). To stay within 1.5 degrees, these companies can extract only 71.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, yet the companies the CPPIB is invested in have 281 billion tonnes in reserve, meaning they have almost four times the carbon reserves that can be sold and ultimately burned to stay within 1.5 degrees. Since reserves are factored into current company valuations, this means the CPPIB has invested billions of dollars in companies whose financial worth depends on overshooting their carbon budget.

This is a moral and ecological failure. It is also a financial risk. As energy generation shifts away from fossil fuels, investors who do not respond could be left with “stranded assets”—investments that are no longer profitable. In its 2019 Financial System Review, the Bank of Canada included climate risk in its analysis for the first time. Canadian fossil fuel companies and their investors are especially exposed to stranded asset risk since the majority of oil produced in Canada is high-cost, carbon-intensive bitumen from the oil sands. And yet, the CPPIB remains exposed to the biggest oil sands majors, with over $1.2 billion invested in Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., Suncor Energy Inc. and Cenovus. Canadian pension beneficiaries may therefore be particularly vulnerable to stranded assets and the financial risks they pose.

Read the report (PDF).

Alberta’s Coal Phase-out: A Just Transition?

By Ian Hussey and Emma Jacksonn - Parkland Institute, November 2019

This report explains that Alberta will have little coal-fired electricity left by the end of 2023, six years ahead of the federally mandated coal phaseout deadline of December 31, 2029. This relatively rapid transition away from coal power is the result of numerous decisions made since 2007 by various provincial and federal governments, a few arms-length agencies of the Alberta government, and several large publicly traded corporations that produce electricity for the Alberta market. Our report aims to evaluate Alberta’s electricity transition to date against principles and lessons gleaned from the just transition literature.

Following the introduction, the report proceeds as follows. In Section 2, we provide an overview of Alberta’s coal power industry, communities, and workforce. In Section 3, we delineate key principles and lessons from the just transition literature. In Section 4, we present case studies on the three companies affected by the Notley government’s accelerated coal phase-out (TransAlta, ATCO, and Capital Power). We examine the Notley government’s transition programs for coal workers in Section 5 and for coal communities in Section 6. Section 6 also includes a case study of Parkland County, which is the municipal district in Alberta perhaps most affected by the phase-out of coal-fired electricity. In Section 7, we provide an analytic discussion of our research results by evaluating the government’s transition programs against the key principles and lessons drawn from the just transition literature. In Section 8, we outline our conclusions based on the research results.

Read the report (Link).

Broadening Engagement With Just Transition: Opportunities and Challenges

By Robin Webster and Dr Christopher Shaw - Climate Outreach, September 2019

The idea of just transition first emerged in the 1970s, when US union leader Tony Mazzocchi1 proposed that people whose jobs were threatened by nuclear disarmament should be compensated for the loss. In the 1990s Mazzocchi broadened the argument to refer to workers in environmentally damaging jobs, whose employment is affected by new policies aiming to reduce pollution.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) now defines just transition as reducing emissions while ensuring “decent work, social inclusion and poverty eradication.” Its basic elements, according to ITUC, include public and private investment to create green jobs, advance planning to compensate for the negative impacts of climate policies and opportunities for retraining for people whose jobs are affected.

A wide range of groups - including environmental NGOs, labour justice groups and policymakers - have since adopted the idea and it is codified in international climate policy. The preamble to the 2015 Paris Agreement requires the international community to take into account “the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs” and the European Commission aims to bring more focus on “social fairness” in tackling climate change.

Just transition is an important concept; a tool for facilitating dialogue between different stakeholders and challenging the discourse of ‘jobs versus climate.’ As one report puts it, it has the potential to be “at the heart of a powerful narrative of hope, tolerance and justice; a narrative that is grounded in people’s actual lived experiences and aspires to guide collective action while simultaneously giving rise to tangible alternatives.”

It is also important from a pragmatic perspective. Recent events - including the Gilets Jaunes protest against a government proposal to raise fuel prices in France and President Trump’s championing of jobs in the US coal industry as a reason for pulling out of the Paris climate change agreement - demonstrate the need to seek social consent for the low-carbon transition, or risk it being undermined.

The term itself, however, is little used outside the policy and technical literature, and hardly used at all in the global South, where it may conflict with other strong cultural narratives - for example the need for poorer countries to develop and use more energy.10 In countries where the idea is more current, only a limited amount of research has been carried out exploring what the idea of just transition means to the communities it is meant to help.

Yet the idea of ‘social dialogue’ between governments, businesses, trade unions and civil society is at the core of just transition, according to many unions.12 Social dialogue means engaging in discussions about what transition means for people’s lives and sense of identity; for jobs, communities and place.13 If just transition is to move from pages of policy reports into reality, then attention needs to be paid to how to frame the dialogue between advocates of a low-carbon economy, and those who are likely to be most fundamentally affected.

Read the report (PDF).

Colorado’s Just A Transition Away from Coal Energy

By Benjamin Stemer - Global Green, August 20, 2019

Over the past few decades, global concern surrounding the rapid change in our Earth’s climate has consistently risen, to the point that many U.S. states are taking independent and decisive action for the welfare of the environment, their citizens, and the global population as a whole. Colorado is just one example of this trend which favors a reduction on energy produced from coal, and an increased emphasis on renewable alternatives. On May 28th 2019, Colorado signed into law the “Just Transition from Coal-based Energy” which incentivizes the early termination of coal plants, while simultaneously providing financial support for any citizens who may be negatively impacted by the early closing of these coal plants. 

With an issue as complicated and misunderstood as climate change, finding and implementing realistic and timely solutions for our climate crisis has proven to be extremely difficult. However, Colorado is not intimidated by the scope and seriousness of this subject and, as a result, they have moved beyond simply discussing this issue through the passing of their decisive policy titled the “Just Transition from Coal- based Energy”. According to the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, with the introduction of this bill, Colorado is setting a strong example for other states to follow (1). This new law creates a Just Transition Advisory Committee, which consists of directors from the Department of Labor and Employment, the Colorado Energy Office, The Department of Local Affairs, representatives from the Governor’s office and the State Senate, as well as 12 local representatives, including three coal workers, three coal community representatives, two members from disproportionately impacted communities, and two experts on economic development and/or workforce retraining. The purpose of the Just Transition Advisory Committee is to create a plan that will provide benefits for impacted workers, make grants available for communities heavily reliant on the coal industry, and offer additional support for anyone impacted by the early closing of coal plants all across Colorado. One highlight of this bill is that any costs associated with supporting impacted workers and communities will be paid for through a process of voluntary securitization of investor-owned coal plants (2). If you’re like most people, you might not have any idea what the process of securitization entails, so let me explain.

A Look At the Miners’ Blockade Stopping Coal in its Tracks

By Earth First! Journal - It's Going Down, August 14, 2019

When I heard news of the coal miners’ railroad blockade in Harlan County, I knew it presented a real chance for growth, especially for movements like Earth First! who are at the intersection of various struggles, including eco-defense, anti-capitalism, climate justice, and prison abolition.

Though I spent most of my life in flat swampy Florida, stories of Harlan County, Kentucky, were burned into my head as a teenage anarchist in circles of Earth First!ers and IWW-types singing labor songs by fireside.

One of the most famous of union ballads, “Which Side Are You On?,” about miners’ resistance in the Kentucky coalfields, includes the line, “They say in Harlan County there are no neutrals there…” Even before the development of climate-focused mass movement, it has always been Big Coal vs. the rest of us.

Over the years, I must have heard dozens of knock-offs of that song for campaigns all across the country. We’d replace Harlan with whatever county we found ourselves in at the time, facing off with corporate raiders of all types.

And now the barricades have come full circle: back to Harlan, a locale of near-mythical significance for it’s legacy of resistance to corporate greed. The miners there have stopped a coal train operated by the company Blackjewel LLC, which filed for bankruptcy and secretly stopped paying the miners while they were still working.

The past and future of Harlan County

By Vincenzo Blandini - Organizing Work, August 2, 2019

I wrote a review of the movie “Harlan County, USA” not too long ago. It was, frankly, a painful experience for me. I truly hoped to not be writing about Appalachian coal country, and much less Harlan County, Kentucky, for some time. I’ve long since moved on from the coal industry, but it still pains me whenever I read news of some tragedy among my brothers and sisters in darkness.

On July 1, Blackjewel LLC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In the balance are nearly 1,700 employees’ livelihoods across Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Wyoming. Immediately upon filing for bankruptcy, Blackjewel closed many of the mines it operated and workers had their paychecks bounce. The mineworkers had their hard-earned wages stolen from them, both from their paychecks and from their retirement and benefit plans. Some miners have even reported that their 401(k) contributions haven’t been properly credited for months. The miners are owed nearly $12 million in wages and $1.2 million in retirement contributions. This bankruptcy doesn’t appear to be disrupting recently ousted CEO Jeff Hoops from building a $30 million resort in West Virginia, however. 

In fact, this outright lack of responsibility from the coal bosses is business as usual. In 2012, Patriot Coal filed for bankruptcy. The United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) responded with huge concessions in employee pay and benefits, as well as cutting $130 million in retiree healthcare and benefits that were already promised. Their taste buds already whetted for concessions, and facing harsh market conditions, the coal bosses went to bat again in 2015. Patriot Coal again declared bankruptcy and auctioned itself to Blackhawk Mining. As part of the purchase, Blackhawk Mining refused to honor the terms of the mineworkers union’s contract. Blackhawk Mining abandoned Patriot’s nearly $1 billion of healthcare and pension obligations to the mineworkers, as well as $233 million in environmental cleanup costs.

Fast forward to two weeks ago, and Blackhawk Mining has declared a restructuring through bankruptcy which, if the recent past has told us anything, will almost certainly be paid for through robbing the mineworkers who did all the actual work. Indeed, the majority of coal mined in the U.S. is done by companies that have declared bankruptcy at least once (and usually more times) since 2015 alone.

For years, the coal industry has been declining dramatically in the face of the massive boom in natural gas extraction and renewable energy sources, as well as a huge drop in demand for coal as a result of the all-but-extinct use of coal for comfort heating in both the residential and commercial market. As a result of this, the coal companies have taken reckless action to lower their operating costs, in order to try and stay relevant in a market with cheap natural gas and renewables whose cost is steadily decreasing. They did so through automation of mine work, as well as pushing more and more for open-pit mining (which is much cheaper to operate and much more automated). They’ve done so through extracting concessions from the growingly jaded and out-of-touch United Mineworkers of America. Finally, they are now doing so by brazenly refusing to pay their bills. The mine operators are playing business like it is a child’s lemonade stand, and the miners who have sacrificed so much already are paying the bill against their will and at great personal cost. Truthfully, this behavior is no less than highway robbery.

Similar to the decline of the coal industry has been the decline of the populations it operated in. Harlan County was a sparsely populated place before coal mining started there in the early 20th century. By the 1940s, 75000 people lived there. Today less than 27,000 do so. The number of mineworkers employed in the county dropped off from more than 13,000 to less than 800 in the same period. The average lifespan of a Harlan County resident has actually gotten shorter between the 1980s and now, and they live on average ten years less than the average American. Unemployment in Harlan is double the national average. A similar story can be told across Appalachian coal country.

Against this backdrop, miners affected by Blackjewel’s bankruptcy heist in Harlan County, Kentucky are putting their collective foot down. The bankruptcy has left nearly a quarter of Harlan County miners out of work. For five days now, a group of miners has occupied the railroad tracks leaving from a mine. They are blocking a train loaded with coal (the train was only allowed to pass after it abandoned its load). Coal that they worked to get out of the ground. Work that they haven’t been paid for. Blackjewel intends to have its cake and eat it too: it intends to keep making money while the miners go without their pay. The group of miners blocking the rail say that they aren’t leaving until they get paid. “No Pay, We Stay” is their motto, and if they are successful in keeping that coal from being shipped to a buyer, then they may just get what is rightfully theirs.

By all accounts, nearly all of Harlan County is fired up about this madness. Even their politicians, heartless wretches that they are, have been pressured into showing up to the occupation to voice their support. 

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