A little while back, I wrote about an interesting study for TreeHugger. Despite all of the anti-environmentalist rhetoric pitching the jobs vs. environment dichotomy, the basic finding was that the decline in U.S. coal was bringing a net growth in jobs. Digging a little deeper, however, there was a potentially disturbing underlying trend: The regions where coal jobs are being lost are not the same regions benefiting from renewables and other clean-tech growth.
And it looks like this trend will continue.
The changing economics of energy
As wind and solar get increasingly competitive, they are beginning to compete directly with coal. And as the EPA's Clean Power Plan kicks into gear, we can expect to see many more coal industry layoffs in the decades to come. Meanwhile, oil consumption is not yet dropping — but with low oil prices putting a hurt on profits, and with electrified transportation becoming an object of desire, oil industry jobs don't look as secure as they once did. In fact, Shell recently announced 6,500 layoffs due to low oil prices, and Bloomberg reports that U.S. oil exploration is idling at an unprecedented rate as the shale oil boom falls foul of falling prices at the pump.
So what are fossil fuel workers to do? And what can (and should) we environmentalists do to soften the blow to oil and coal regions as the inevitable low-carbon transition comes about?
It turns out, work has already begun in some quarters to make this transition easier.
Caring for coal country while transitioning from coal
When Hillary Clinton announced her clean-energy goals recently, she went out of her way to insist that help would be given to coal country, saying "It’s important that we help them transition to a new economy. I want to do more to help people in coal country..."
And in the 2016 fiscal budget, the Obama administration proposed a Power+ Plan that included generous provisions to help coal regions transition as coal mines closed. As detailed by David Roberts over at Vox, the plan includes:
• $200 million per year for five years for cleaning up abandoned mines
• $5 million for cleaning up pollution at coal-fired power plants.
• $20 million to retrain ex-miners.
• $25 million to the Appalachian Regional Commission.
• $6 million more for "place-based regional innovation efforts".
• $3.9 billion to shore up pensions and medical care for retired miners.
Coal lobby blocks aid to coal communities
So there are some solutions out there, but the trouble is that pro-coal legislators have been blocking such legislation, seemingly in the hope that the coal industry will come back. Now the coal mining town of Whitesburg, Kentucky, has passed a resolution in support of the plan, calling on Congress to pass the Power+ Plan and help the region move forward with a transition that many see as all but inevitable.
In similar news, the Australian Labour Party caused a stir recently when it announced an ambitious pledged to achieve 50 percent renewables in the country's electricity supply by 2030 at the latest. Besides the sheer ambition of the plan, the announcement was also notable for who was supporting it, namely Australia's biggest coal mining union. Here's how Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) President Tony Maher explained the move to Australia's ABC News:
"We've got to face the reality in domestic coal-fired power. The companies, led by AGL and Energy Australia, have announced that they will close their fleet by 2050, one by one. And they won't be building other ones to replace them, so we have to deal with that."
This wasn't, of course, just a case of coal miners turning into treehuggers. The CFMEU's support was contingent on an extremely generous adaptation package that includes commitment to income support, priority job placement for laid-off miners, as well as early retirement.
Are oil workers next?
So far, coal country has seen the worst of energy-related layoffs, but the oil industry may not be too far behind. Ultimately, even natural gas interests will feel the squeeze if a truly low-carbon economy comes into focus. As we continue to push for much needed emissions cuts, some will argue that fossil fuel-dependent regions brought their dependency on themselves — and to some degree, they'd be right. But given that coal- and oil-producing regions are often hot beds for climate denialism, it's in our own tactical best interests to help them diversify their economies. (Oh, and I should mention that it's the right thing to do too.)
The more people who have a viable stake in the clean energy future, the more likely that future will become.