The blog of the Urban Institute
March 3, 2021

“Learn to Code” Won’t Cut It: How Planners Can Ensure Energy Transitions Won’t Leave Coal Country Behind

March 3, 2021

A centerpiece of the Biden-Harris administration’s $2 trillion clean energy plan is a commitment to fulfill our national obligation to coal mining and power plant communities bearing the brunt of economic impacts from decarbonization. The new administration promises to protect and expand coal miner benefits, leverage community assets to diversify economies, and establish a task force to help communities realize investments and grow jobs.

Economic investments are critical to increasing resilience in energy transition communities, but many politicians have done little to engage coal communities beyond either narrow or dishonest economic visions for the future—some reductively suggest that coal miners could “learn to code,” others raise false hopes of a return of coal. Among policy interventions, the Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) Initiative is perhaps the most expansive, but with a FY2021 budget of about $50 million, it’s a drop in the bucket compared with what’s needed.

To do what’s right by those who dedicated their careers, families, and communities to the industry that powered the 20th century, planners and policymakers should recognize that coal losses are more than economic—they’re community-wide—and prioritize social and cultural infrastructure investments that value communities beyond their economic utility.

Recognition is central to just energy transitions

In recent decades, increased productivity and market shifts to natural gas hastened the decline of coal, with losses hitting mining communities in the Powder River Basin and central Appalachia hardest. During the same period, the concept of a just energy transition emerged from labor and environmental justice movements to increase equity for displaced workers and challenge the notion that jobs and environmental protections are incompatible.

Recognition is a key dimension of energy justice that recognizes that uneven impacts from energy transitions are rooted in social, cultural, ethnic, racial, gender, and power differences, and that lack of recognition can influence cultural and political degradation.

Lack of recognition is one reason why numerous job training initiatives for growing numbers of displaced coal miners meet with limited success or failure. At best, many exhibit narrow technocratic or job training foci which fail to internalize that workers don’t exist in vacuums and retraining alone cannot address systemic challenges associated with attracting and keeping diverse industries in largely remote, rural parts of the country. Worse, such initiatives can diminish people in coal communities as one-dimensional labor cogs that should simply “learn to code;” at worst, they can be little more than extractive and opportunistic profit ventures. In any case, coal communities are often scapegoated for these failures or pejorative media narratives reduce them to problems with rural people or cultures.

Because the consequences of coal loss are more than economic, policy responses must be, too

As coal demand and production continues to decline, many recent climate and energy transition plans—including the Biden-Harris platform, the Green New Deal, the Marshall Plan for Middle America, Reimagine Appalachia, and the Colorado, New Mexico, and Virginia plans, among others—include provisions to strengthen and diversify economies. Although they vary in targets, timelines, and scope, they all emphasize economic redevelopment, worker protections, and environmental remediation—with varied respective focus on social, cultural, and other non-economic community impacts.

Yet industry loss in communities dominated by a single industry constitutes more than just job losses. Social scientists have found that declines in community industrial activity can have cascading effects on quality of life and social and cultural vitality. Just as meatpacking in Green Bay and auto manufacturing in Michigan have shaped regional economies andcultures, coal mining is not only a source of income, but also culture and identity for many whose labor, families, and communities made the industry possible.

Recognition begins with identifying energy transition impacts across the energy system—from energy-producing communities, to energy transportation, energy export, and energy-consuming communities—and the different ways people experience benefits and harms. Recognition in coal country requires treating people as valuable beyond their value to industry—fossil fuel or green—and targeting reinvestments to the whole community.

Federal, state, and regional energy transition planners can consider the following to increase community recognition in coal country:

  • Develop specific, measurable, and appropriated social and cultural targets. Many energy and climate plans include priorities like procedural and distributive equity or BIPOC, rural, class, or gender representation, but few include explicit measurement and evaluation targets, and even fewer outline recommended appropriations to achieve them. Existing and emerging plans can implement a social contract model that defines and prioritizes social and cultural investments with equal consideration as technological, economic, and infrastructure targets.
  • Broaden investments. Investing in communities beyond their economic utility will (still) support economic development—but more importantly, help make communities places people want and deserve to live. Broadening investments treats communities as ends rather than means, and investing in social and cultural capital assets reinforces other community capital assets—including economic development.

    For example, environmental remediation paired with natural resource and outdoor recreation investments can help enhance the already amenity-rich regions of Wyoming, Kentucky, or West Virginia that have been most impacted by coal mining for the people living there, while at the same time expanding recreational tourism opportunities. Similarly, investments that support partnerships between arts, social services, and civic organizations have proven valuable in strengthening community capacity overall—a key asset to resilience and sustainability planning—but are also core institutions that make communities dynamic and thriving places people want to live.  

Previous energy transitions have left communities behind—but this is not inevitable. But without meaningful recognition of and partnership with communities most affected by the loss of coal, decarbonization at the pace and scale that is needed is unlikely—and getting it right in coal country is an investment in getting it right in other fossil fuel communities, which will not be far behind.

The offices of a coal mining company feature a photo of three miners on a mural in the lobby. The Kittanning downtown main street is reflected in the office window. A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that large swaths of both rural and urban Americans worry their childrens generation will not be better off than them. At least half of rural and urban residents alike feel that the news media has little or no respect for people like them. The findings challenge some assumptions about Americas growing divisions emphasized by the 2016 presidential election. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

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