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Clean Power

The Save Our Future Act Offers Blueprint for Supporting Coal Workers & Communities

Originally published by Union of Concerned Scientists, The Equation.
By Jeremy Richardson, Senior Energy Analyst

Climate champs Senators Whitehouse and Schatz introduced a solutions-oriented bill today that would put a price on emissions of heat-trapping gases as well as criteria air pollutants and use the revenues to mitigate the impacts of the policy on consumers, workers, and communities. Dubbed the Save Our Future Act, the bill is an example of a bold set of policy solutions to the urgency of climate change.

UCS supports many elements of the bill, but I’ll focus in on one of the groundbreaking pieces — the Energy Veterans title, which would invest in the coal workers and communities facing the consequences of shifting to cleaner forms of energy. The proposal represents a bold vision for making these workers and communities whole in the face of the urgency of climate change.

Leadership

Long a champion of pricing carbon emissions to tackle the climate crisis, Sen. Whitehouse understands that the transition away from coal will have a profound impact on those workers and communities that depend on coal for jobs and economic livelihoods. And he understands that workers and their families have sacrificed for generations in order to help keep the lights on — referring to them as energy veterans to emphasize that we should collectively respect them for their service to the nation.

The benefits and resources outlined in the bill represent the boldest proposal to date to support the workers and communities who will otherwise be left behind in the shift to clean energy. Although challenging, it’s critical to acknowledge the negative impacts of the policy and address them head-on. That means ensuring well-funded and sustained resources for coal workers and communities — resources that must be included no matter how Congress ultimately decides to address climate change.

Supporting energy veterans …

The reality is that the transition away from coal-fired electricity is already happening. The problem is that the transition is happening haphazardly, without much planning or forethought. This lack of planning is leading to devastating consequences for workers and communities. Our recent report with the Utility Workers Union of America articulated a robust and comprehensive set of policies and showed that the cost of these resources is affordable relative to large investments made by the government in times of crisis. We argued that providing income support for dislocated workers gives them the time they need to prepare and plan for what comes next. The key is providing wage replacement for a period of time, which gives individuals the flexibility to make informed choices, rather than to rush to take the quickest training program that would land them a new job.

The Whitehouse-Schatz bill takes a page from our report. It specifically:

  • Creates a new coordinating office in the Department of Treasury charged with distributing benefits and resources, establishing local field offices to assist affected workers and communities, and (importantly) coordinating support among federal agencies;
  • Provides five years of full wage replacement for laid-off coal miners and coal-fired power plant workers;
  • Ensures workers continue to receive health care coverage for five years following the loss of a job.
  • Ensures laid-off coal workers continue to receive expected employer contributions to retirement funds or pensions for five years, to ensure that they can retire with dignity; and
  • Establishes a program akin to the post-9/11 G.I. Bill that would provide flexible educational benefits to the affected workers as well as their children.

… And coal communities

The bill specifically:

  • Provides temporary replacement of lost tax revenue for local and tribal governments facing a closure of a major facility;
  • Invests in reclamation of abandoned mines and facilitates the remediation of coal ash ponds — because cleanup of legacy pollution not only creates local jobs but sets up the community to diversify its economy and grow new businesses;
  • Increases funding to federal agencies and programs that support community economic development, including the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Economic Development Administration; and
  • Invests $30 million per year for ten years in rural broadband — a critical enabling infrastructure investment for economic development.

The time for bold action has come

We often talk about the need for bold action on climate change. But here’s the thing — the pain of shifting to a clean energy economy should not fall entirely on the people and communities that rely on coal. Through no fault of their own, the energy landscape has shifted, and they deserve a fighting chance to thrive. This bill would offer coal workers that chance — and lawmakers must include robust, well-funded provisions like these as they work to tackle climate change, whatever ultimate policies are enacted to drive down heat-trapping emissions.

 
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