Thousands of coal workers lost jobs. Where will they go?

By Arianna Skibell | 06/24/2020 07:32 AM EDT

A tug of war between preserving high-salary coal jobs and addressing climate change is playing out across the country, pitting clean energy interests against unions and fossil fuel companies.

As the long-shrinking coal industry hemorrhages jobs, states and local groups are seeking new ways to transition to a lower-carbon economy without leaving coal workers behind.

As the long-shrinking coal industry hemorrhages jobs, states and local groups are seeking new ways to transition to a lower-carbon economy without leaving coal workers behind. Claudine Hellmuth/E&E News(illustration);Cyndy Sims Parr/Wikipedia(Chalk Point Generating Station); ©b3d_/Flickr(hard hats)

Correction appended.

Dozens of coal workers stormed the Senate office building during the Maryland legislative session earlier this year to protest a plan that would phase out the state’s remaining six coal-fired power plants.

The bill in question included grant money for displaced workers and affected communities, but the local labor union dismissed the provision as inadequate.


"It was a non-starter," said Jim Griffin, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1900. "Those bills were essentially written by the Sierra Club."

David Smedick, a campaign representative with the Sierra Club who was active in supporting the measure, said Maryland’s transition away from coal should include support for affected workers, but he stressed the urgency of shutting the plants down.

"We need a clear end deadline for burning coal in our country," he said. "Seeing a coal plant in the rearview mirror is positive for climate."

This tug of war between preserving living-wage, unionized coal jobs and addressing climate change is playing out across the country at every level of government, pitting environmental and clean energy interests against unions and fossil fuel companies favored by the Trump administration.

But as the long-shrinking coal industry hemorrhages jobs and coronavirus shutdowns further plunge coal consumption, states and local groups are seeking new ways to bridge the blue-green divide and transition to a lower-carbon economy without leaving anyone behind.

"There are a lot of states that are really trying to be proactive, and there are individual plants where there have been some good outcomes," said Jeremy Richardson, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "But we need federal investment because the scale of the problem is so large."

It is unclear, however, whether any efforts will be effective in supporting workers with highly paid jobs that may not have immediate replacements in communities long dependent on coal.

"We do not have, at a national level, the systems and programs in place to adequately assist workers that are dislocated from the coal economy or the communities that have relied on the coal economy for generations," said Jason Walsh, head of the BlueGreen Alliance, a national partnership of unions and environmental organizations.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were close to 90,000 coal mining jobs in 2012, compared with 46,600 today. In the last decade, more than 300 coal-fired power plants have retired, eliminating coal-related jobs in the power sector.

The decline has decimated local economies that relied on associated tax revenue like Boone County, W.Va., which used to draw a surplus of money from a state tax on coal companies. With bankruptcies and layoffs, the resulting budget deficit and population exodus have led to rounds of teacher layoffs and slashed county jobs and benefits, according to county data. Other coal-reliant towns have closed schools and laid off hundreds in the public service sector.

President Trump promised on the 2016 campaign trail to preserve the coal industry, but jobs hit a record low under his administration. The administration has defended its policies, saying in a statement this week that "President Trump ended the Obama Administration’s eight-year war on coal by eliminating the top down federal mandates that were destroying coal producing communities" (Climatewire, June 22).

Many analysts say coal’s decline was inevitable because of market dynamics, fueled by competition from natural gas, flatlining electricity demand and cheaper renewable power. Last year alone saw a historic drop in coal generation, and for the first time, renewables are expected to generate more electricity than coal this year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

There were efforts during the Obama administration to help coal workers and economies transition, but not at the scale necessary, according to Walsh, who led the push at the time as senior policy adviser in the White House Domestic Policy Council.

Under pressure for years to address the thousands of coal worker layoffs, President Obama introduced an initiative in 2015 that would make up to $38 million available in grant funding as a "down payment" for affected communities (Greenwire, March 30, 2015).

"We had some success, but not nearly at the scale that was necessary then and not anywhere close to the scale that’s necessary now," Walsh said.

The debate comes as many of the job losses in coal and other fossil fuel sectors are occurring in swing states like Virginia, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Minnesota and New Mexico.

AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of labor unions, endorsed presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden for president, and he has said he supports transitioning coal workers to other jobs. If history is a guide, that might not translate into votes. In 2016, Hillary Clinton lost coal states despite a $30 billion transition proposal to support displaced workers.

AFL-CIO and some of its constituent unions also have expressed skepticism about some of the climate change and environmental policies Democrats have embraced, like the Green New Deal. The federation’s Energy Committee, led by the heads of the United Mine Workers of America and the electrical workers union, called the proposal "not achievable or realistic" in a letter last year.

"There doesn’t seem to be anything available right now nationwide," Griffin of IBEW said. "So the only thing we have left to do is to fight and claw to keep their jobs. There are no options for these folks."

‘Eat an environmentalist’

Joe Uehlein, the founding president of the Labor Network for Sustainability, said there is a historical lack of trust between the environmental and labor movements.

"Every time a union member has to walk across a picket line of environmental groups, it does something to damage the relationship," Uehlein said. "Environmentalists loudly celebrate every time a coal plant closes without any thought or concern for the workers at that plant who are losing really good jobs with good pay and good benefits."

Uehlein, who works to mobilize the labor movement to fight climate change, pointed to when he was an employee at the now-shuttered Three Mile Island nuclear generating station in Pennsylvania, known for its partial meltdown in 1979. Uehlein said he crossed a throng of angry protesters every day on his way to work.

"But I took their literature, and I read it and it made sense to me," he said. "For me, it opened my eyes to their arguments, but for a lot of people, these incidents don’t help."

He recalled a popular bumper sticker at the time that read, "If You’re Hungry and Out of Work, Eat an Environmentalist."

Uehlein said there is growing recognition, however, that the labor and environmental communities need each other to achieve their respective goals. Environmental groups are adopting workers’ concerns into their lobbying agendas, and labor unions are realizing that climate change, and not Obama’s "War on Coal," as the popular Republican refrain goes, is the real job killer, he said.

"Things look bleak, but at the same time I think we’re sitting right at the edge of a huge progressive uprising," Uehlein said.

He cited Colorado, where Gov. Jared Polis (D) enacted a series of clean energy laws last year with the backing of the state’s labor movement.

Unions and environmental activists coalesced around the creation of an Office of Just Transition in the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. The office has a dedicated staff and a diverse advisory committee charged with creating an equitable plan for coal-dependent communities and workers as the state transitions to 100% renewable energy by 2040.

For many labor advocates, the term "just transition" refers to policies to ensure workers displaced by a shift away from coal and fossil fuels have a fair shot in a low-carbon economy.

In Colorado, unions successfully pushed for language in the bill requiring the Office of Just Transition to include supplemental income to cover "all or part of the difference" between coal workers’ old jobs and their new ones. The language aims to mitigate the fear that clean energy and other jobs pay less than the fossil fuel industry.

The law, the first of its kind in the United States, was called a potential road map by supporters for other coal-reliant communities in Appalachia, the Powder River Basin and Hopi-Navajo lands in Arizona. New Mexico enacted similar legislation last year. Advocates in other states with clean energy goals, like Virginia, say they will push for similar legislation next session.

Large environmental groups in recent years also have expanded their focus to include labor concerns. In 2017, for instance, the Sierra Club joined the Service Employees International Union’s fight for a $15 minimum wage to highlight the need for good union jobs.

Other nonprofits and philanthropic organizations have formed to support displaced workers, such as the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform and the Just Transition Fund.

The BlueGreen Alliance’s members assembled an action plan this year to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while ensuring quality jobs for workers.

"Beyond the trust it builds, it demonstrates an agenda that is ambitious at the scale that the climate emergency requires that can be supported by not just environmental organizations, but labor organizations, as well," Walsh of the BlueGreen Alliance said of the plan. "If done right, we can create millions and millions of high-quality jobs."

‘Those skills will be hard to transfer’

In the absence of federal support or other financial assistance, however, states and community groups say they are grappling with the reality of coal’s decline.

In Maryland, the Legislature adjourned early over COVID-19 concerns before the coal phaseout bill could move forward. Two months later, a Houston-based company, GenOn Holdings Inc., announced the closure of three coal-fired units in the state. It cited unfavorable economic conditions and increased costs associated with environmental compliance as its reason for retiring the units in Dickerson, Md.

Without a legislative plan to cushion the blow, upward of 63 people will lose their jobs, according to the company.

"We do have a severance program we’ve negotiated, but it’s not going to change the fact these folks are going to lose their jobs," Griffin of IBEW said. "Working in a power plant is pretty specialized, and those skills will be hard to transfer to another career. There are some options with other power plants, but they’d have to pick up and move to another state."

But for others, the closure at Dickerson is a win, in particular for low-income people and communities of color, who are often disproportionately affected by power plant pollution. Nationally, over 60% of African Americans and 40% of Latinos live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, and those residents are typically exposed to upward of 60% more pollution than they produce through consumption and daily activities, according to the NAACP.

"Dickerson has been a major contributor to particulate matter pollution," said Tim Whitehouse, the executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "It has also been a major polluter of the Potomac River."

Ramón Palencia-Calvo, deputy executive director of Chispa Maryland, a program seeking to empower the state’s Latino community, added that Latino children are 40% more likely to die from asthma than their white counterparts. "We find ourselves as one of the most affected in terms of health; there is a high prevalence of asthma and chronic bronchitis," he said.

In nearby Virginia — which became the first Southern state this year to pass legislation to reach net-zero carbon emissions — there was not a just transition section commensurate with Colorado’s law. But Chelsea Barnes, a program manager with Appalachian Voices, a grassroots advocacy group, said she’s confident there will be a groundswell of support in the next legislative session.

"We’ll have a lot of partners when we go to the Legislature next year who will help us advocate for a just transition," Barnes said.

In the meantime, local groups like Appalachian Voices, with help from the Just Transition Fund, are working to clean up abandoned mine lands and use the space to create locally driven economic opportunities, such as building solar farms.

The Just Transition Fund began five years ago with backing from the Rockefeller Family Fund. It seeks to invest in local efforts to help coal communities build resilience and low-carbon energy economies.

"The most durable solutions are the ones that are community driven and built by local leaders," Executive Director Heidi Binko said. "But federal and state investment is really important."

Coronavirus, EPA and recession

Community-led efforts to pass legislation are an important step, but those laws must also be funded and enforced, according to Rebecca Newberry, the executive director of the Clean Air Coalition, which is working in the town of Tonawanda in upstate New York to support a shift from coal jobs to other employment.

"There is work being done, it’s just not being coordinated as well as it should be," she said.

Newberry teamed up with the local unions, teachers association and environmental groups after it became clear the coal-fired Huntley Generating Station would retire. The plant, located on the banks of the Niagara River, was Erie County’s largest polluter but also the biggest source of taxpayer income in the working-class Buffalo suburb.

The groups formed the Huntley Alliance and pushed the New York Legislature to create a transition fund for the town. In 2015, when the plant announced it would retire, the Legislature dedicated $30 million in gap funding, which increased to $45 million in 2017, to maintain public services while the local economy regained its footing after the coal plant closure. The fund was the first of its kind in the United States.

Over 1,000 community members came together to develop an economic transition plan for the town, which would begin with site cleanup and redevelopment. Newberry said a lack of a sufficient federal enforcement mechanism has slowed down implementation of the plan.

"If Trump did not disband the EPA’s enforcement ability, that would make it easier," she said.

Trump’s EPA completed the fewest cleanups of toxic Superfund sites last year than any administration since the program’s first years in the 1980s, according to EPA records (Greenwire, Feb. 20). EPA has sharply defended its record, saying in a statement in April in response to an EPA inspector general report that "its enforcement and compliance program focuses on achieving compliance using many tools" (Greenwire, April 1).

Newberry said the coronavirus and subsequent lockdown have paused progress. But New York is beginning to reopen.

"As we continue to open up, there needs to be a priority to have these billion-dollar corporations to clean up their shit," she said. "The fact this burden is passed onto taxpayers is completely out of line. We need leadership in D.C. that cares about poor and working-class people because there’s going to be a lot more of us as this recession hits."

The U.S. economy lost over 20 million jobs in April with the unemployment rate spiking to 14.7%, the worst since the Great Depression, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell has predicted a slow recovery, with the unemployment rate falling to 9.3% by the end of this year and 6.5% by the end of 2021. He said a substantial number of Americans may never get their jobs back.

Binko of the Just Transition Fund said it’s crucial to develop a road map for transitioning coal-reliant communities. Since January, 4,500 coal jobs have been lost, according to federal data.

"Getting it right is going to help ensure other communities down the road benefit as we transition to a more carbon-constrained world," Binko said.

Correction: A previous version of this story included an incorrect figure for the current number of coal mining jobs.