Biden weighing ‘deep’ transition for coal

Source: By Arianna Skibell, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, November 3, 2020

If Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden wins the White House, a sweeping plan to help struggling coal communities may take root.

That’s the aim of a coalition of advocates who have been quietly drafting a federal policy to create a division within the White House dedicated to reinventing local economies ravaged by the coal industry’s decline and planning for future economic loss tied to the energy transition.

The groups say they are in talks with Biden’s policy team but stopped short of offering specific details.

“What I can say is they have been very receptive,” said Jason Walsh, a former Obama administration official who now serves as executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of labor unions and environmental organizations leading the effort.

“In the hypothetical Biden administration, this work will go pretty deep,” said Walsh.

Across the country, coal plants are closing. The industry is being steadily priced out by cheap natural gas and renewable energy, strangled by regulations to reduce carbon emissions that cause climate change, and squeezed by weak international demand. Last year, coal-fired electricity generation hit a 42-year low, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Tens of thousands of workers have lost their jobs, and local economies that rely on industry tax revenue to fund schools and other social services have been devastated. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the trend.

“The energy transition is happening in this country, and we do not currently have the policies and programs in place to support the workers and communities affected by that transition,” said Walsh, who served as a senior policy adviser in Obama’s White House Domestic Policy Council and led efforts to scale up investments in communities affected by the shift away from coal.

Exactly what President Trump would offer the ailing industry in a second term is unclear. When asked for details, Ken Farnaso, Trump’s deputy national press secretary, referring to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), blasted Biden’s “radical, Bernie-inspired manifesto, his job-killing Green New Deal, and his proposed ban on fracking,” which he said would hamstring the energy sector. But Farnaso offered no specifics on what Trump would do to boost the coal sector should he win reelection.

Former Trump adviser George David Banks said that while a Biden administration would likely accelerate the process of driving coal off the grid, there’s not “a whole lot” Trump could do to reverse current trends.

“There’s carbon capture and storage, but by the time that’s commercialized and the price is driven down low enough for it to be competitive, we won’t have very many coal plants left,” he said. “So I don’t know what a second-term Trump administration could do to make a huge difference.”

‘They don’t work’

When asked about Walsh’s ideas, a spokesman for Biden’s campaign said it is receptive, pointing to the former vice president’s climate platform, which calls for investing in workers who “took on dangerous jobs to power our industrial revolution and the decades of subsequent economic growth.” Biden has promised federal benefits for coal miners and their families, including access to health care and an “unprecedented” investment in their communities.

Walsh’s plan offers a blueprint for accomplishing these goals, and his team is working to assess what level of “unprecedented” investment would be necessary. Central to Walsh’s pitch is the creation of a federal task force to help workers in the coal sector to transition to other work, a national action plan for the sector, and the creation of a federal office that would be guided by an advisory board made up of affected stakeholders and communities. Other pieces call for reclaiming and remediating coal sites to create jobs.

Those ideas, which Walsh has shared on Capitol Hill, are tied to the concept of a “just transition,” a framework that stems from the 1970s labor movement — and has become a popular umbrella term on the left — for providing economic relief for displaced fossil fuel workers while shifting to low-carbon alternatives.

“We’ve never done an industrial transition in this country where we didn’t leave communities behind,” said Jeremy Richardson, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists who is collaborating with Walsh. “A bold vision like this involves a lot of money.”

But some say Biden would face pushback and skepticism in coal communities, given the anti-extractive streak that runs through the left of the Democratic Party.

To be sure, a number of labor unions representing coal workers, many of whom have been supportive of Trump in the past, are throwing their weight behind Biden (Greenwire, Oct. 27).

But Quillan Robinson, vice president of government affairs at the American Conservation Coalition, a conservative environmental organization, said the Democratic Party is unlikely to win over coal workers after years of engendering mistrust.

“You have a lot of the folks talking about a just transition lining up against fracking,” he said. “We need folks on the right side of the aisle talking about a vision to address climate change that’s not going to put people out of work.”

Robinson said that because climate change has not been as much of a focus for Republicans, compared with Democrats, they don’t have a developed agenda for helping regions reeling from coal’s decline. He said discussions focused on lifting up struggling coal communities should be focused on “innovation and growth.”

Conor Bernstein, a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, said a “just” policy for coal miners and coal communities is one that allows the coal industry to compete and provide the fuel that is “essential” to energy affordability. “The best jobs for coal country and coal communities are the jobs that already exist,” he added, citing higher pay for many mining jobs in comparison with other occupations.

Banks questioned a just transition program but said the Republican Party would certainly support some policies to help hurting coal communities, including looking for alternative uses for coal in order to help the industry find new markets.

“These just transition programs look really good on paper, but they don’t work,” he said. “It’s incredibly hard to reset and reinvent an economy.”

Any effort by Biden — if he is elected — also could face money roadblocks, considering the cost of transitioning workers; the challenge of moving legislation through a potentially divided Congress; and competition with other priorities, like infrastructure and combating COVID-19.

Capitol Hill debate

As the tug of war between preserving living-wage, unionized coal jobs and addressing climate change plays out across the country, a movement seeking to bridge the divide and transition to a lower-carbon economy without leaving anyone behind is gaining traction among some lawmakers.

Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.), who has been in talks with Walsh about a federal plan, said the decline of coal is a huge issue for his district, whose members include the Navajo and Hopi nations.

“We have to stop making it into a political issue and start dealing with the reality,” he said in an interview with E&E News. “It’s critical we get in front of this.”

The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis released a sweeping proposal earlier this year that included a number of just transition efforts, a large percentage of which Banks said most Republicans would support.

“They just don’t call it ‘just transition’; they’re not using the same jargon,” he said.

For example, last month, Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia announced nearly $30 million in loans and grants from the Department of Agriculture for rural food development projects across her state, providing economic opportunities outside the coal industry.

Still, Capito said the focus should be on the new markets for coal. In a statement to E&E News, she blamed the Obama administration for regulations that she said affected coal “without considering the real-world impacts.”

“Coal is a reliable source of base load generation, and it must remain a part of our energy mix to meet the demands of powering the nation,” Capito said, adding that she continues to support uses for coal like extracting rare earth elements and carbon manufacturing.

Members of the Senate Environmental Justice Caucus, all of whom are Democrats, have endorsed a policy framework called the National Economic Transition (NET) Platform, which was coordinated by a nonprofit called the Just Transition Fund.

The NET Platform is the culmination of a yearlong process during which 80 local, regional and national organizations, convened by the Just Transition Fund, built a policy framework to support the people and communities hit hardest by the ailing coal industry and ongoing energy transition (E&E News PM, June 29).

Local leaders from Appalachia to the Navajo Nation put together a seven-point guide, which draws on Obama-era policies like the Power Initiative and lays out a move away from the coal economy to a sustainable one based on clean energy, tourism, reclamation and other industries.

At least one Democratic effort has drawn support from the mining sector.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) introduced a bill based on the NET Platform’s recommendations, which was endorsed by the United Mine Workers of America (E&E Daily, July 24).

From Appalachia to the West, coal is dying

In the last decade, more than 300 coal-fired power plants have retired, with greater losses under Trump than during Obama’s second term (Climatewire, June 22). Coal mining jobs fell from 90,000 in 2012 to fewer than 46,600 today, according to federal data, with the most dramatic losses in the Appalachian region, which includes West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

Now the trend is heading West, with plants slated to close in Colorado and massive coal bankruptcies and production pullbacks announced in Wyoming, which derives 60% of its budget from energy revenues (Energywire, Nov. 19, 2019).

O’Halleran’s district in Arizona includes more Native American families than any other district in the country, many of whom have relied on coal jobs since the 1960s, when electric utilities first began using the Navajo’s rich coal deposits to power the Southwest.

“We lost the Navajo Generating Station and [Kayenta] mine just before I got into Congress,” said O’Halleran, a former Arizona state senator first elected to the House in 2016. “I spent the first part of the year trying to get a handle on it.”

Of the seven coal plants built in and around the Navajo Nation, the Navajo Generating Station was the largest. Its 775-megawatt turbines helped power Las Vegas and Los Angeles along with the pumps that carried Colorado River water across the desert to Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz. Its closure, announced in early 2017, has left nearly 1,000 Navajo and Hopi tribal members without jobs and many more without viable heat (Climatewire, Jan. 2).

O’Halleran introduced a bill in 2019 that would provide economic assistance to the Navajo and Hopi tribes, temporarily replacing lost tax revenues. He also introduced a measure early this year that would assist tribes with access to electricity. Neither has yet gained traction.

He’s now reaching out to constituents to begin laying the groundwork for the federal office Walsh is pitching, as well as technical and financial assistance. “The first thing is recognizing this is happening,” O’Halleran said. “It’s going to be costly one way or the other to the federal, state and local governments.”

Lessons from Germany

Under Obama, Walsh oversaw an initiative that brought together federal agencies to scale up investments in coal communities hurting from a changing energy economy. That effort was nixed under the Trump administration.

But advocates have continued to work, drawing inspiration from a trip last February to Germany, where they saw firsthand the country’s plan to exit coal. That included phasing out coal-fired electricity generation by 2038, investing billions in coal regions and communities, and offering nationalized health insurance.

“The Germans started the process two years ago. Their whole thing is, if you have a community centered on coal, we’re not going to just let it collapse and then build it back,” said Lee Anderson, government affairs director for the Utility Workers Union of America. “We’re going to plan now for what this community is going to become. It’s hard to imagine from an American point of view.”

Germany’s system is very different from that of the United States on policies such as nationalized health insurance.

Banks, now a chief strategist for Republicans on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, cast Germany’s plan as a program “designed largely to buy those communities off and help make the situation politically viable.”

He also said the notion of a just transition poses a “philosophical” question, since coal’s decline has been driven by market forces.

“Where do you draw the line?” he asked. “At some point, wind may not be as competitive as solar. Does that mean at some point we have to have a just transition for all the wind turbine folks? It’s a question we have to ask.”

But Anderson said that he doesn’t fault Germany’s motivation, which seemed to center on preventing “political radicalization.”

“The Germans recognize there’s more at stake than just economic impacts. When communities unwind, there are political consequences of that,” he said. “It wasn’t a secret. It was right out loud.”