Biden Says He Backs a Just Transition for the Climate Crisis. Advocates Say, “Prove It.”
While the administration has taken some early steps to provide support for energy workers and frontline communities in the transition away from fossil fuels, experts and activists say the crisis demands a more transformative approach.
Rachel M. Cohen
One of the most difficult problems that political leaders have faced in addressing climate change has not involved the science or technology, but the politics, including bringing key constituencies like energy workers and their labor unions on board. This skepticism and resistance to change is why a so-called “just transition” — referring to an ethical and economically secure shift away from a fossil-fuel powered economy — has become so integral to crafting a successful climate plan.
Figuring out how to provide economic security for both energy workers that have depended on the nation’s fossil fuels and frontline communities has become a leading priority for activists and elected officials alike. The Biden administration, for its part, has thrown its weight behind developing a just transition, though some advocates tell In These Times that federal leaders haven’t gone far enough, or worry the executive branch’s rhetoric won’t deliver real results. Other researchers have called for more careful study of past economic transitions, as well as more firm commitments around social programs such as universal healthcare.
On January 27, one week after taking office, Biden signed an executive order establishing an interagency working group focused on addressing the economic needs of “coal, oil, gas, and power plant communities.” The group, co-chaired by National Economic Council director Brian Deese and National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy, is a collaboration between 12 federal agencies including the labor, interior, treasury and energy departments.
In late April the working group published an initial report identifying 25 of the most impacted regions for coal-related declines, and highlighted existing federal programs that could provide nearly $38 billion in funding for relief. The report noted that “creating good-paying union jobs in Energy Communities is necessary but not sufficient” and stressed that “foundational infrastructure investments” including broadband, water systems, roads, hospitals and other institutions would be necessary to economically revitalize these areas. The group also noted that a just transition would require prioritizing pollution mitigation and environmental remediation, like plugging leaking oil and gas wells and reclaiming abandoned mine land. These objectives hold the potential not only for job creation but also achieving environmental justice priorities.
Next steps from the working group include organizing town halls with senior Biden administration officials in affected communities like those in Appalachia, the Northern Rocky Mountain region, the Illinois Basin, and the Mid-Continental Gulf Coast, and establishing a centralized mechanism for distributing federal resources.
Near the end of its second term the Obama administration launched its own interagency effort to provide grant funding and technical assistance to communities impacted by the transition to renewable energy. Known as the POWER Initiative, the effort was never subject to a formal Government Accountability Office evaluation but a 2019 analysis prepared by the Congressional Research Service determined some of its legacy programs continued to be active and receive annual appropriations under the Trump administration. The Appalachian Regional Commission credited the POWER Initiative for investing over $200 million in 239 projects across Appalachia. Jason Walsh, the executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, told In These Times that the Biden administration’s effort is “the POWER Initiative on steroids.” (Walsh convened the POWER Initiative prior to joining BlueGreen.)
Biden also included some measures to support a just transition in his recently released infrastructure proposal, the American Jobs Plan, such as a $16 billion fund that would finance energy workers plugging oil and gas wells and cleaning up abandoned mines. “In addition to creating good jobs in hard-hit communities, this investment will reduce the methane and brine that leaks from these wells, just as we invest in reducing leaks from other sources like aging pipes and distribution systems,” reads one White House fact sheet.
The American Jobs Plan also endorses an $100 billion investment in projects such as affordable broadband access and calls for a new $40 billion Dislocated Worker Program at the Labor Department.
Walsh, of BlueGreen, said more is needed to support workers on the legislative front, and that his group has been having “an open dialogue” with the administration on how to make those supports a reality. “We need to start from recognition that our existing Department of Labor programs are not designed to sufficiently support workers who are dislocated, they just don’t provide enough support,” he said.
Jeremy Richardson, a senior energy analyst at the Union for Concerned Scientists, said he worries the proposed amounts of spending in the American Jobs Plan are too low — and others too vague in their description. With respect to the $16 billion for plugging oil and gas wells, for example, Richardson noted that the plan “doesn’t specify the breakdown in cleaning up these sites, but it’s likely that this amount is insufficient to meet the needs.” Other development initiatives were mentioned in the American Jobs Plan, such as the Economic Development Administration’s Public Works program, but without proposed funding levels. Richardson notes the plan is also silent on other important areas relevant to a just transition, like the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund and removing loopholes from our nation’s bankruptcy laws that have enabled corporations to abdicate responsibility to their workers.
Heidi Binko, executive director of the Just Transition Fund, a philanthropic effort focused on helping coal communities, called Biden’s infrastructure plan “an ambitious first step.”
Lawmakers in Congress have pushed forward just transition bills that overlap with priorities in the American Jobs Plan. Last month, Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández (D-NM) introduced an $8 billion bill called the Orphaned Wells Cleanup and Jobs Act. “Communities suffer when oil and gas companies abandon their drilling sites and don’t clean them up,” said House Committee on Natural Resources Chair Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-NM) in a statement supporting the bill. “I look forward to the day when these hazardous sites are a thing of the past.”
In the Senate, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) introduced the Schools and State Budgets Certainty Act, aimed at helping states like New Mexico wean off the money they currently rely on from the federal fossil fuel leasing program. (The leasing program accounts for almost a quarter of the country’s annual carbon output and generated nearly $8.1 billion in tax revenue for the federal, state, local and tribal governments last year.
Nicole Ghio, a senior fossil fuels program manager at Friends of the Earth, said while she has some concern with Heinrich’s bill as presently drafted, her group strongly supports the legislative goal of helping states decouple their revenue from the federal leasing program as part of a just transition. “We’ve seen what an unmanaged decline of fossil fuels looks like,” she told In These Times. “We need to avoid repeating what’s happened in Appalachia.”
What energy workers need
Outside of the proposals made by the White House and in Congress, advocacy groups are helping to highlight the urgency of making a just transition central to any climate and infrastructure plans.
A report published in March by the Labor Network for Sustainability, which supports unions in tackling climate change, featured lessons and interviews with more than 100 workers, Indigenous leaders and community representatives about navigating workplace closures, the climate crisis and major upheavals in local economies. The Just Transition Listening Project spotlights some encouraging examples of what a just transition might look like, such as the Redwood Employee Protection Program of 1978, a federal initiative that supported dislocated timber workers. That program provided up to six years of pay, benefits, vacation, relocation and retraining for full-time and seasonal workers and a three-year bridge to retirement for those 62 and over.
The report also highlighted the justified skepticism from some workers that new clean energy jobs would offer comparable standards of living, and it explored tensions between environmental justice activists and union members.
Mijin Cha, an assistant professor of urban and environmental policy at Occidental College and one of the report’s co-authors, told In These Times that it’s important to remember that fossil fuel jobs themselves were not necessarily good jobs when they first came online. “We have created a lot of low-paying renewable energy jobs but there’s no reason they have to be,” she said. “It’s through worker organizing and worker power that they can become good jobs.” The Just Transition Listening Project endorses passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, federal legislation that would eliminate right-to-work laws, impose new penalties on employers who retaliate against union organizing and establish new rules so that employers can’t delay negotiating collective bargaining contracts. This type of pro-union legislation would help give renewable energy workers more power on the job.
Still, worker skepticism on quality job creation is understandable, as “it took decades and decades of bargaining to make those jobs well-paying and provide pensions,” said Todd Vachon, a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at Rutgers University, and another report co-author. Labor laws today are also much weaker compared to the 1930s, though the PRO Act would help address that.
Common themes that emerged in Just Transition Listening Project interviews included fears over the sustainability of replacement jobs as well as the affordability of healthcare, retirement and education. To ease these concerns, the report authors recommend instituting universal programs like Medicare for All that would help alleviate a lot of the anxiety that sparks opposition to economic transitions. The authors also explored the idea of creating universal transition programs not just for energy workers but also for workers facing dislocation from automation and outsourcing. “If we could really provide a robust social safety net, it would make a huge difference,” said Dimitris Stevis, a political science professor at Colorado State University and another report co-author.
Basav Sen, the Climate Justice Project Director at the Institute for Policy Studies and the co-chair of the Energy Democracy Working Group at the Climate Justice Alliance, commended Biden’s team for endorsing the passage of the PRO Act to help workers unionize, but he lamented that the administration and even most Democrats haven’t embraced single-payer healthcare. “The fact that that’s not really a part of the just transition conversation shows how lacking in a comprehensive vision the administration and political leadership’s vision is,” he said.
Walsh of BlueGreen alliance said that ideally there would be a generous universal dislocated worker program. “I would love to be able to work toward that, though I’m skeptical we’ll get there,” he said. “I also want to take advantage of the opportunity we have over the next 4-6 months to pass infrastructure legislation and fight hard for energy workers who are most impacted right now.”
Cha of Occidental said serious gaps still exist in our understanding about how past economic transitions have played out. “We don’t really know what happened, where the workers were displaced to,” she said. “We have general numbers, but we don’t have good qualitative data and it’s all really incomplete.”
The researchers think Covid-19 has impacted the conversation around a just transition as well, as millions of workers experienced very recent and concrete job losses and disruptions from the pandemic. Following the report’s publication the authors led a congressional briefing for House and Senate staff, and have been in subsequent discussions with some of those offices, according to Labor Network for Sustainability spokesperson Judy Asman.
Asman said her group also submitted recommendations based on the report to Biden’s interagency task force, and presented their findings to Greenpeace International, Last Chance Alliance, and some labor organizations, though she declined to specify which.
Cha said the important thing for lawmakers to realize is that they don’t have to start from scratch. “We know how to meet the immediate material needs of workers so they don’t have to be in crisis,” she said. “We know that wage supplements and universal programs can give workers and communities time to develop what they need. We know what people need on a basic level.”