Last week, it was all smiles at Beyond Coal
when the retirement was announced
of the giant, much-protested Brayton Point Power Station
in Somerset, Massachusetts.
That's the 150th U.S. coal-powered generating plant to go that route since the beginning of 2010. It's the largest remaining coal-burner supplying electricity in New England. It's also one of the filthiest of the nation's power plants, ranked as 14th nationwide out of 378 by the NAACP for its negative impacts on minorities and people of modest means. Protesters have sought to shut the place down for years. In July, 44 were arrested for acts of civil disobedience at the plant.
There is little doubt that the shutdown is good news for the planet.
But what will happen to the 240 workers at Brayton Point? And to the community of Somerset? For that matter, what will happen to all the other American communities and individuals whose livelihoods depend on coal being dug and burned when the shutdown campaign succeeds nationwide? Can their interests, can they, merely be given a sympathetic nod followed by a shrug, and then cast aside, sacrificed for the greater good?
Only believers in a devil-take-the-hindmost society can deny that there is a matter of justice here. Only the uncivilized, whether lawmakers or political movements, seek to impose policies without attention to ameliorating the impact these may have on already vulnerable people. Given that coal communities have always been the first casualties of our use of this resource, subsidizing our demand for cheap energy with damage to their health and environment, they deserve not to be victimized again. Policies that eliminate jobs and cause other severe impacts should include ample provisions to redevelop affected communities in a sustainable manner and to help displaced individuals navigate a transition to new jobs. Window-dressing policies are unacceptable.
Van Jones told an interviewer in 2008:
I think it's important that we be respectful of all the contributions that have been made by all workers. Even our coal workers are heroes in a way ... in that they've been asked to sacrifice their lungs, their health, their communities. We're now asking our coal miners to blow up their grandmother's mountains! Awful ... Mountain top removal and strip-mining ... Those coal miners don't set the energy policy in this country but they have to make the sacrifices to carry it out. I think that sometimes we aren't respectful enough, that we're not as encouraging and honoring of the people who have gotten America to this point.
President Barack Obama on June 25, 2013, said
We’re going to need to give special care to people and communities that are unsettled by this transition—not just here in the United States but around the world. And those of us in positions of responsibility, we’ll need to be less concerned with the judgment of special interests and well-connected donors, and more concerned with the judgment of posterity. Because you and your children, and your children’s children, will have to live with the consequences of our decisions.
The brilliant writer and activist
Jeremy Brecher recently wrote
To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, if God had intended some people to fight just for the environment and others to fight just for the economy, he would have made some people who could live without money and others who could live without water and air. There are not two groups of people, environmentalists and workers. We all need a livelihood and we all need a livable planet to live on. If we don’t address both, we’ll starve together while we’re waiting to fry together.
Brecher's condensed eloquence may seem obvious. But we have had, and continue to have, a long-standing argument between people who say the economy and the environment are separate entities and other people who take the point of view that the two have been inextricably entwined ever since Neanderthals and Early Modern Humans started dating and trading flint-knapping tricks a few dozen millennia ago.
Count me among the believers of permanent entanglement and its corollary: Neither the environment nor the economy can have policy primacy over the other if either is to be sustained. If we are to thrive.
Please read below the fold to read about worker transitions in a coal-free environment.
Before going on, it should be noted that neither Beyond Coal, which has only been around three years, nor other environmental organizations can take full credit for the shutdown of those 150 coal plants. Many are decaying relics that wouldn't have been been kept operational even if they weren't ever more hemmed in by inefficiencies, environmental regulations and competition.
The shutdowns are the outcome of a complex combination of factors, including new federal regulations like the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and the soon-to-be-implemented New Source Performance Standards on coal-fired power plants, state requirements that utilities provide a percentage of their electricity from renewable sources, efficiencies and conservation measures that have lowered electrical use and a switch to more efficient generators using cleaner natural gas for fuel.
Environmental advocates are, however, responsible for the fact those new federal standards and state requirements and efficiencies and conservation even exist. Regulating carbon dioxide emissions was not on the agenda in Washington until activists made it so with lawsuits and actions. Those who claim the accelerated pace of coal plant shutdowns is all about technological advance are wrong.
Nowhere is the fact of eco-econ entanglement more strikingly illustrated than when it comes to coal. The industrial revolution that made possible today's economy was powered by coal. Excavating it from the earth and burning it created previously unbelievable wealth and, in some privileged places, a large middle class. Simultaneously, coal poisoned the water, the land, the air and us. Tens of thousands of Americans still die prematurely every year from exposure to coal. The health costs surpass $60 billion a year. Worldwide the damage mirrors America's.
Worst of all, as climate scientists have made pretty damn clear to anybody without a vested interest in claiming otherwise, burning coal (and other fossil fuels) have been mucking up our oceans and atmosphere for some time. The chaotic climatological consequences are now arriving. Perhaps over time what's been already done to bring about these consequences can be undone, partially at least, but right now all we can do is try not to make matters worse.
To help accomplish that prevention, thousands of activists in hundreds of organizations—national and local—have sought to stop burning coal by blocking the construction of new power plants that use it and getting older plants shuttered. The fight is not just limited to burning coal here. Activists also seek in several ways to make it more difficult to export coal.
The ultimate goal is no secret. Stop burning coal. Period. This means no more coal miners, no more strip-mine drag-line operators, no more coal-fired plant operators and hundreds of thousands of empty railroad hopper cars. Which makes for a lot of people out of work. Not just those assigned to handling the coal-related tasks, but all the people who sell them groceries, provide them entertainment, teach their kids.
They can't just be tossed away even though that's been the corporate attitude forever.
It's not as if nobody is thinking about the needs of those affected. Policies to deal with dislocations caused by shutting down coal and other climate-protection measures have been discussed at high levels under the rubric of "transition assistance." But, as Joe Uehlein, former secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO's Industrial Union Department wrote four years ago, something has been lost on the way from the think-tanks to the legislative arenas:
Unfortunately, “transition assistance” in the past has often meant little more than a funeral for workers and communities threatened by the side effects of globalization, environmental protection and other public policies. Without a clear program to protect workers from the effects of climate protection, the struggle against global warming can all too easily come to be perceived as a struggle against American workers. Workers have often felt threatened by measures to protect the environment. Today such fears are likely to be augmented, especially in a time of soaring unemployment, by the large changes necessary to protect the planet from global warming.
Got that? A clear
program. Not some vague promise of "green jobs" and community redevelopment but serious plans and serious funding to actually make this happen.
It's not something that has gotten much public attention, but environmental activists have for some time been working together with community leaders, labor unions and indigenous communities to develop what's being called a "Just Transition."
In fact, a Just Transition Coalition was created especially to press forward a deal between the Hopi and Navajo Indian tribes with Southern California Edison to support the growth of renewable energy on their reservations in the wake of the closing of the coal-burning Mohave Generating Plant in 2005. An ad hoc coalition also negotiated with Gov. Chris Gregoire in mutually agreed speeded-up shutdown of the Trans-Alta coal-fired power plant in Centralia, Washington.
The Mohave deal was particularly controversial, which is one reason it took so long to come to fruition.
After the Mohave plant closed eight years ago, Southern California Edison, which owned 56 percent of the operation, accumulated Clean Air Act sulfur pollution credits that it no longer needed under the Acid Rain Cap and Trade program. These it sold to coal-plant operators in other parts of the country. Advocates for the Hopi and Navajo argued before the California Public Utilities Commission that during its 34-year-life the plant had not only polluted the area but also sucked up vast amounts of fossil water to run a coal slurry from the Black Mesa mine to the generating station. Given that history, CPUC ruled in February this year that revenues from the sale of the credits would go into a revolving fund to provide start-up money for renewable energy projects that benefit the two tribes.
And what of Brayton? A year before the closure was announced, in a 2012 document—Brayton Point Coal Plant: Operating at Our Expense—Coal Free, a Massachusetts coalition dedicated to phasing out coal burners in the state by 2020, the authors state:
In Somerset, those who have borne the devastating health burdens caused by coal are now threatened, economically and socially, by the disintegration of jobs and revenues that have funded the basic operations of their town. Finding a solution for the future—a just transition—means resolving a tripled conundrum of health, wealth and workforce.
Efforts have taken place across the country to redevelop coal plants and other industrial facilities, such as old mill sites and closed military bases. Community residents and local and state officials can draw on both national and local example to determine best practices for Somerset.
Well-intentioned, no doubt. But those words of concern appear cut-and-pasted from consultantese boilerplate. What specifically
should be done to assist workers who lose their jobs is left unstated. As is funding. No adequate source of money for the transition is mentioned anywhere.
The new owners of Brayton, the ones who took just a few months after buying the facility to decide it was not worth operating, claim they will take measures to mitigate the harm the 2017 shutdown causes. Perhaps so. This has occasionally occurred. But even the most optimistic observer knows whatever measures are implemented, they almost certainly will not be enough.
What's needed is a national Just Transition policy.
Please don't remind me that the current make-up of Congress makes passing any worthwhile policy out of the question. I've heard about that.
It's the long view that matters, not just what we can get done today. It's crucial that progressives—rank-and-file activists working with elected leaders of vision—propose good policy even at times they don't have the political clout to get it legislated. By letting Americans know what they have in mind, they up their chances of getting enough votes to gain that political clout.
Communities are unique. Vast differences exist between the coal miners of Appalachia, some with three or more generations of coal miners in the family, and the heavy equipment operators in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana. So, as with all policy measures, one size does not fit all when it comes to transition assistance.
Nonetheless, a national transition policy with flexibilities built in for local differences could go much further than merely ameliorating the situation as the coal industry shuts down. We should think big.
Brecher again, in the midst of the Great Recession but still quite relevant:
Just as the New Deal in the Great Depression of the 1930s put millions of unemployed people to work doing the jobs America’s communities needed, so today we need a “Green New Deal” to rebuild our energy, transportation, building, and other systems to drastically reduce the climate-destroying greenhouse gas pollution they pour into the air. Such a program would put an end the “jobs versus environment” conflict because environmental protection would produce millions of new jobs and expansion of jobs would protect the environment. Such a program provides a road for both labor and environmentalists to move beyond our current dilemma.
Following that path would mean that a Just Transition would be simply one of many elements of a broader program. A Just Transition for all
displaced workers could be infused in a new economy. Not merely technologically new. That is happening anyway. And certainly not just one that expands the economy we already have. Such a conventional expansion would also expand the inequality in wealth and income as well as environmental wreckage that the current economy has already given us. In other words an UnJust Transition favoring the 1% with crumbs for the rest of us.
In announcing a Climate Justice Alliance "camp" last June for training people interested in working on a Just Transition in their own communities, Bill Gallegos, executive director of Communities for a Better Environment and a CJA Steering Committee member, said: “We can create quality jobs by retooling the infrastructure in our regions. We need to divest from dirty energy and the ‘greed economy’ and invest in a transition to local living economies and community resilience."
Said Jihan Gearon, another CJA Steering Committee member and executive director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, “We can have power without pollution and energy without injustice.”
Yes, we can. Yes, we must.