Just Transition: Amid Climate Debate And Coal’s Decline, West Virginia Considers Its Future Monday, Feb 17 2020 

On a recent soggy Wednesday evening, dozens of West Virginians packed a conference room inside the Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center to discuss the need for a “just transition” for coal-impacted communities.

As the nation grapples with climate change, the need for a fair transition for workers and communities that depend upon coal jobs and revenue has also gained traction. Nearly every 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful has touted some version of the idea, ranging from the expansive “Green New Deal” championed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to former Vice President Joe Biden’s more modest mix of worker training and direct assistance for coal country.

In West Virginia, discussions are starting to get attention in the state’s capital despite strong political support for the coal industry.

“When you’re hearing a call for a just transition for coal-reliant communities, folks are saying ‘look, starting now and into the future, we’re going to decarbonize the economy,’” said Ann Eisenberg, a law professor at the University of South Carolina. “There will be disproportionate losses imposed on coal-reliant communities. And that’s unfair. So we’re going to offset the losses. And that is where I think this is a good thing. And it’s also tricky.”

Eisenberg was one of a handful of experts who spoke at the event hosted by West Virginia University’s Center for Energy and Sustainable Development, the nonprofit West Virginia Center on Climate Change (an offshoot of conservation group Friends of Blackwater), and the left-leaning West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Three groups hosted a just transition discussion on Feb. 5, 2020 in Charleston, WV.

The speakers facilitated a conversation about what constitutes a “just transition” as well as how West Virginia and other regions that depend on coal could actually get there.

Adele Morris with the Brookings Institution said the first step is to acknowledge the clear data about coal. Even without a comprehensive climate policy, the fuel is already losing ground in the region and across the country. Low natural gas prices and the falling cost of renewable energy have priced many coal plants out of the market.

hindsight2020-mine-empAlexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Federal data show since 2009, mining employment and coal production has fallen by about 50 percent in the Ohio Valley. The energy shift is already underway, Morris said, but without the part that would help communities make the transition.

hindsight2020-mine-prodAlexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

“We’re in it. We’re in the transition,” said Morris, who is a senior fellow and policy director at the nonpartisan think tank. “And it’s going to get worse before it gets better. But it’s not fair. And that’s what I think should be urgently at the top of the agenda of the policymakers from coal country, and they’re not, in my opinion.”

Legislative Attempt

One lawmaker is making a pitch in West Virginia. State Del. Evan Hansen, a Democrat representing the north-central county of Monongalia, has introduced a bipartisan bill that would create a state Just Transition Office, and a community-led advisory committee that would focus on helping West Virginia communities affected by the decline of coal.

“The primary goal here is to write a just transition plan for the state of West Virginia that would look at ways to funnel funding into these communities and other types of resources into these communities in a manner that’s led by what people in those communities think is best,” Hansen said.

The bill is modeled after similar legislation that passed in Colorado. On Wednesday, the West Virginia version passed out of one of the two committees to which it was referred, but Hansen acknowledges it faces a long road to becoming law with the state’s legislative session more than halfway done.

Still, he believes the appetite is growing among the state’s lawmakers to address coal’s decline.

“I would say privately many legislators of both parties acknowledge that there is a transition going on and that this is one of the most important issues that we need to deal with as a Legislature,” Hansen said.

Not everyone is a fan of the bill, including the West Virginia Coal Association.

“Sounds to me like that they think that it would be much better if it were something other than the coal miners,” said the group’s president Bill Raney. “And that bothers me a whole lot because we got the best coal miners in the world.”

Raney’s group is pushing a bill this legislative session that would require West Virginia coal plants to burn the same amount of coal they did in 2019 in the years ahead, regardless of what makes most economic sense.

Of major note during the discussion was how to pay for a “just transition.”

Today most economic transition work in the region comes from federal programs including the Appalachian Regional Commission and Abandoned Mine Land program funding, which offer grants to coal-affected communities in the millions of dollars range.

Morris has estimated the region will require tens of billions of dollars over the next decade and would require some kind of regulatory leadership from Washington, D.C., preferably a carbon tax. Democratic candidates who have supported the idea have differing ways to fund it, although most rely heavily on investing in clean energy and decarbonizing the economy through a “Green New Deal.”

Some in the region have encouraged lawmakers and candidates looking at these climate policies to engage with residents directly.

That includes Cecil Roberts, head of the United Mine Workers of America. In September, he spoke at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. He expressed concern the type of sweeping change Democratic presidential candidates are promising may be too big of a lift for Congress given its past track record in helping coal country.

“We want our health care saved, and if you can’t do that, and it’s been 10 years, how do you think we’re going to believe that you’re going to be able to give us a just transition from the coal industry to some other employment?” he said.

Kentucky Conversations 

Chuck Fluharty, President and CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute, helped to organize a community-centered, just transition model in eastern Kentucky called Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR. He said SOAR has shown this type of work is possible, especially if a community-centric approach is embraced. However, it’s not easy.

SOAR’s premise is built upon a collective impact investing model that engaged the public, private and philanthropic sectors.

IMG_4112Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

Kentucky entrepreneurs show their products at the 2019 SOAR Summit.

“The real proof of the pudding is in how broad collective commitment is, and is it there for the money or is it there for the future?” he said. “How much it is about investing and not simply dropping dollars on the table.”

Some politicians hope to engage coalfield communities directly about how to balance implementing climate legislation while protecting workers and investing in communities. Kentucky Democratic state senator and U.S. Senate candidate Charles Booker recently launched a series of town meetings on the subject in the heart of eastern Kentucky coal country.

Even among those who support a just transition, questions remain about how best to do it. Morris said there is little data on what has worked in economic transitions in the past. Her team has looked at the impact of military base closures, for example, but said the analogy isn’t perfect. Worker retraining efforts often have mixed results.

“There’s this policy design challenge of how do you get from the wholesale dollars of the federal government into well designed retail level grants and assistance and so on,” she said. “I’m still struggling with exactly how you do that in a way that gets those resources out, but does it in a way that that gives people comfort that it’s responsibly allocated.”

In a report published last July, Morris and colleagues at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University quantified just how much of a coal-producing county’s budget came from coal, and how big a hole their budgets might face without coal revenue.

Then the authors turned to the various policy proposals to limit greenhouse gas emissions, which would set a price on each ton of carbon dioxide released to the atmosphere.

Morris said that the revenue generated by such policies could be steered into the type of investments needed and at a scale that would make a just transition more likely.

For example, a carbon tax of $25 per ton would likely raise a trillion dollars in revenue over 10 years, she said.

“And that kind of revenue allows for a very generous support for coal-reliant areas,” Morris said.

Rethinking Retraining: Why Worker Training Programs Alone Won’t Save Coal Country Monday, Oct 7 2019 

Bobby Bowman mined coal in West Virginia for 12 years before his employer shut down. 

“I don’t think that mine will ever open again,” he said. 

Bowman lives in Welch, in the south of the state, where he worked at the Pinnacle Mine, which shut down almost exactly one year ago, putting him and about 400 others out of work. After waiting a month in hopes someone would buy Pinnacle and the mine would reopen, Bowman decided to do a four-week training program offered by the United Mine Workers Career Center. He enjoyed it and earned a certification in heavy equipment operation. But when he came back home, he struggled to find a job in the field. So Bowman took matters into his own hands. 

“So I sent myself through truck driving school and that’s what I’m doing today,” he said. 

Bowman is not alone. In the midst of the region’s declining industries, politicians are betting big on job training, with millions directed at those who lost jobs in coal mining and power plants. 

Benedum_-1Rebecca Kiger | Ohio Valley ReSource

Participants in a West Virginia worker training program offered by Coalfield Development Corporation.

The U.S. Department of Labor recently announced nearly $5 million for worker training programs in Appalachia. It’s the latest influx of funding aimed at blunting the job losses in the region’s coal sector. 

Recently Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky announced more than $2 million in funding from the National Dislocated Workers fund, and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia announced more than $1 million in funding from the same program. 

But critics say worker training alone is no solution and that such retraining programs have a poor record in actually connecting dislocated workers with local employment that pays a comparative wage.

“There are great examples of ones here in Appalachia who have trained people for jobs then they couldn’t find employment,” Ted Boettner said. The executive director of the left-leaning West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, Boettner said job training hasn’t made up for the number of jobs lost by the coal industry. He and other economists argue that a more broad-based approach to jobs, public investment, and wages will be necessary for coal country. 

Wage Gap

“You have to realize a lot of this is in the backdrop of 40 years of wage stagnation across this country and especially men in West Virginia,” Boettner said.

He said job training needs to be connected to employment that pays well because it’s difficult to go from a $75,000 a year coal mining job to one that pays $12 or $15 an hour. Boettner points to areas of opportunity, such as Appalachia’s needs for mine reclamation work which could also provide jobs for coal miners similar to the work they’ve already done. 

“We have $4 to $5 billion in mine site reclamation that needs to happen,” he said. “That’s enough jobs, that’s thousands of jobs, and billions of dollars of investment right there.”

Courtesy CVI

Stream restoration work in progress on an old mining site in West Virginia.

Josh Benton is deputy secretary of the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet in Kentucky, where miners have been hurt by recent coal bankruptcies. Benton said the state has had some success retraining people to work in the healthcare industry. But the real challenge is finding jobs where that displaced worker lives. 

“The challenge that we face is not necessarily are the training programs effective? It is, are there other industries, for those displaced workers to go to work,” he said.  

Benton said the jobs that have been created in technology or healthcare don’t make up for the ones lost in the energy sector over the last 10 years. Wages are another concern. He said it’s a tight labor market and he tries to communicate that to employers who are looking for skilled workers, but offering low wages. 

“If a manufacturer, for example, is paying an entry-level wage of $11.50 an hour, you know, if we’re aware of that, we can say that the average entry-level wage for manufacturing across the state is really $14 an hour,” he said. “So, it’s not surprising that you’re struggling to find someone because you’re paying below market value.” 

idle-mines-coal-employment-cenppp-v3Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Political Appeal

Gordon Lafer is a professor at the University of Oregon, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, and author of “The Job Training Charade.” Lafer argues that job training pushes a false narrative that employers aren’t hiring people because they can’t find workers with the right skills. 

“I think that job training keeps being promoted because it solves a political problem both for elected officials and for employers, but it doesn’t do anything for the economics,” he said.   

Lafer said the most important thing to understand about job training programs is that they don’t create new jobs. However, he argues, those programs do create a convenient narrative for politicians on both sides of the aisle.

“Job training is one of the favorite things of both Democrats and Republicans because it’s cheap, it’s symbolic,” he said. “It kind of places the blame on workers instead of employers because it suggests only if you had the right skills or the right work ethic or something then you wouldn’t be in the trouble you’re in.”

Lafer said the employment picture in the Ohio Valley is especially important because of its connection to climate change. He said talk of a “Green New Deal” and a move away from polluting industries should include a just transition for those who would lose jobs.

“It’s just not in good faith to say, one group of people is going to pay the price for saving the planet,” he said. “Either we have to say, we’re going to take care of people from age, whatever they are when they lose their jobs to when they would retire. Or there have to be other jobs that are real jobs.”

Lafer said he’s heard this public policy touted as a solution for years, but it isn’t creating employment opportunities as advertised. 

“You could take on every argument, bring all the statistics and show why it doesn’t make sense. As a policy, job training feels like the undead to me,” he said. “Like you can drive a stake through its heart and it keeps coming back up.” 

Different Approach

Lafer said a better approach is to train people and invest in the industries that can’t move to a different country with cheaper labor once they get to a scale where they need more employees. Some of those industries include healthcare, construction, education, and tourism. 

Economist Ted Boettner said public investments in infrastructure, including expanded broadband, could help create a stable economy that works for everyone. 

“Have we upgraded our antiquated grid? That’s thousands and thousands of jobs in West Virginia if we just upgrade the grid,” he said. 

As automation continues to grow, and the coal industry declines, more people will be displaced. The challenge is training those workers for jobs that pay well and aren’t likely to be outsourced or automated.