Efforts to make up for the devastating loss of fossil fuel jobs have so far been locally led, but the Biden administration has promised to support a fair transition to a green economy
* Fossil fuel workers, unions see need for a 'just transition'
* Efforts so far are largely local, hopes rise for federal support
* Closure of dirty industries could open up space for new business
By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, March 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Lacy Davidson Ferguson and her husband moved back to Wayne County in rural West Virginia to start a family about five years ago, they ran smack into an economic catastrophe.
Much of the state was already in economic decline as demand for a key export - coal - dried up as a result of shifts to greener energy.
And after a key freight train stopped running to the area, the fallout spread.
"The Wayne lumber plant closed and other businesses that supported that industry, and student enrollment started to decline," Davidson Ferguson, 33, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone. "That's when this shift really started."
It is a shift being felt in communities across the United States that have long relied on the fossil fuel industry for growth, as policy makers adopt cleaner energy to tackle climate change.
Scattered local and state efforts have sought to ease the pain, aiming at what some call a "just transition".
But there is now rising optimism that new U.S. President Joe Biden's administration is preparing to bring unprecedented federal attention to the issue.
"We're at an inflection point," said Jason Walsh, who was part of the federal government's only previous concerted push for a just transition, under former President Barack Obama, though Walsh called that program "ad hoc".
Sustained federal support has been a missing ingredient, said Walsh, now executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of labor and environmental groups.
But the idea of seeking a just transition remains controversial, with some seeing it as ineffectual cover for a green agenda, while laborers fear new jobs could pay far worse.
"We are very concerned about public policy that invests in renewable energy without provisions to ensure that workers earn good family-supporting wages with benefits," said Terry O'Sullivan, general president of the LIUNA labor union, whose members build and maintain energy facilities.
Needs in communities undergoing an energy shift are huge, encompassing not just workers but also big investments to rebuild economies that once depended on the fossil fuel sector.
Brandon Dennison, CEO of Coalfield Development, a social enterprise that fosters new businesses in Appalachia, noted growing acceptance among communities of the need to adapt.
"There is a new energy for this work," he said. "The coal industry left this massive void in its wake, and that creates space for new ideas to come up."
In the United States, the conversation around a just transition began about a decade ago, focused on coal communities, said Devashree Saha, a senior associate with the World Resources Institute, a think-tank.
The scope has expanded only recently to all carbon-intensive industries such as oil and gas and the auto sector, she said.
"We haven't even solved the just transition issue around coal communities - and now we are looking at an even bigger scale of challenge," she said. "It's like a coming tsunami."
The United States has lagged other countries such as Canada, Germany and Spain on the issue.
Biden campaigned on directly addressing the problem, and within days of taking office set up an inter-agency working group and pledged to funnel 40% of green energy investments to disadvantaged communities.
He also promised strong climate action and has rescinded approval for a contentious oil pipeline, affecting thousands of jobs and sparking anger among workers.
"At age 45, I have to start all over," pipeline worker James Jernigan wrote in a Montana newspaper this month. "No one from the Biden administration has reached out ... to offer us a new job, or give guidance on how we can train for one."
Such reactions underscore the balancing act facing Biden in enacting potentially politically polarizing energy and climate policy, said Wesley Look, a senior researcher with Resources for the Future, a Washington think-tank.
"We need to ensure very real benefits are felt by communities that otherwise might be negatively impacted by the new administration's policies," he said.
Some groups have been preparing for this moment for years, said Heidi Binko, executive director of the Just Transition Fund.
It spearheaded the National Economic Transition Platform, published in June, an effort by dozens of labor, green and development groups outlining common needs across fossil fuel communities and key government actions to address them.
In the multi-state Ohio River Valley, local officials in November banded together under a framework called the "Marshall Plan for Middle America" - a reference to the rebuilding of Western Europe after World War II.
Led by Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto, it lays out a vision of regional co-operation that would include $60 billion a year in investment for a decade to revitalize an area set to lose 100,000 energy jobs.
Pittsburgh, formerly a major steel producer, has made great strides toward repositioning itself as a tech hub, but the benefits have not been distributed fairly, said Grant Ervin, the city's chief resilience officer.
The new plan, which seeks to create more than 400,000 jobs "for the first time says as a region that we need to make this transition include everyone", he added.
Biden will next week travel to Pittsburgh, a city with a long union history, to unveil a multi-trillion-dollar plan to rebuild America's infrastructure, while also tackling climate change and issues like income equality.
HARD TO REPLACE
Still, getting ahead of local economic upheaval is not always possible, experts told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The remote towns of Colorado's "West End" region grew up around a coal-fired power plant constructed in the 1960s that was supposed to close this year, but instead shut two years early, with just six months' notice.
"It was huge in our community. Those 76 jobs were the best-paying jobs in the community and very difficult to replace," said Deana Sheriff, executive director of the West End Economic Development Corporation.
But local communities rallied, pooling government and philanthropic money to hire Sheriff to jumpstart a transition, while also seeking to backfill wages as workers transitioned from one job to another.
Today the area is doing surprisingly well, Sheriff said. About a third of the workers moved to other cities to stay with power plant company Tri-State, another dozen or so retired, and the rest bought existing businesses or created new ones.
But authorities are struggling to fill holes in the local tax base, which the plant closure reduced by more than half.
"This is devastating to our school district, the fire department - we're at the point of doing bake sales," Sheriff said.
Wade Buchanan, director of the Colorado Office of Just Transition, the first such state-level agency, said Colorado has about 2,500 coal-sector workers, and it will cost an estimated $100 million to meet their needs if the industry shuts down.
In addition, coal facility closures would affect about $3 billion in commercial property value and federal support would be needed to fill the resulting gap in tax revenues, he noted.
"It's not easy, but this is basic economic development work," he added, emphasising the need to avoid more "ghost towns" like those from the state's gold and silver mining past.
In West Virginia, Davidson Ferguson and her husband are playing their part in local economic redevelopment by jump-starting a nascent organic farming movement.
They raise livestock and grow herbs, mushrooms and more on 800 acres. They recently opened a small store and are teaching others keen to learn about the work.
Local people have shown "tons of interest", said Davidson Ferguson, but she admitted "the infrastructure is challenging - and that's where there's opportunity in the post-coal economy".
For example, the county has no meat processor or provider of organic feed - areas that are ripe for new businesses, she said.
"We want to give people a reason to stay here," she added. (Reporting by Carey L. Biron; editing by Megan Rowling and Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.