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Just Transition:

A Plan to Protect our Climate and Help the Western United States Move on From Coal

Responding to mounting controversy and scandal, the U.S. Department of the Interior is reforming the way it manages publicly owned coal in the United States. Earlier this year, the Secretary of the Interior announced a pause on new coal leasing and initiated an historic review of its coal management program. 

As a first step forward, Interior opened up a public comment period and scheduled a series of public meetings across the nation, including in Casper, Wyoming, Salt Lake City, Utah, and Grand Junction, Colorado.

It’s a welcome and refreshing acknowledgment of the need for bold change in the way our publicly owned coal is managed. And reform could not come at a more critical moment.

An Urgent Need for Change

The coal industry faces a bleak future. The world is moving beyond carbon intensive and costly forms of energy and scientists are increasingly pointing to the need to keep coal in the ground to protect the climate. Not only that, but coal companies are collapsing under debilitating debt, failed business models, and geologic reality. 

In the last year, Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal, and Peabody Energy, three of the top four U.S. coal companies, have declared bankruptcy. 2015 marked a 30-year low in coal production and projections indicate 2016’s decline will be the largest since 1958. Every western state has experienced major declines. The fall of the coal industry threatens to leave communities and our nation saddled with enormous costs.

Westerners, including opinion leaders and elected officials, are increasingly acknowledging that coal is dying. Yet companies are doing everything they can to deny the truth. Instead, industry is continuing to secure millions for their executives while they crumble and let disaster befall communities.

Here in the western United States, we’re feeling the injustice. In March 2016, Arch and Peabody laid off nearly 500 workers in Wyoming and Alpha just laid off nearly 40 more. Companies are also putting the cost of cleaning up mines—more than $2 billion—onto the shoulders of taxpayers. Coupled with the growing cost of climate change, including diminished water supplies, lost forests, and declining fish and wildlife, the toll we face is enormous.

A Critical Opportunity

To safeguard our climate and our future, it’s clear we need to move beyond coal. However, keeping coal in the ground must not mean pulling the rug out from under coal-dependent communities or leaving workers hanging.

It’s time for a just transition. That means providing resources and support for communities to shift to more sustainable and prosperous economies, and for workers to move into more secure and lucrative careers. More importantly, it means putting the needs of communities and workers first. The Interior Department’s coal reforms provide an opportunity to help make this happen. 

coal transition keep it in the ground memeAlready, initiatives are moving ahead to support coal communities developing and implementing economic alternatives. The bipartisan RECLAIM Act (Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More) was introduced in Congress earlier this year and stands to unlock $1 billion in funding

Here in the west, communities are already taking advantage of aid. Moffat County, Colorado, home to the coal town of Craig, secured $50,000 from the Obama Administration last year to develop economic alternatives. Millions more was disbursed to other communities, including the Navajo Nation, which received nearly $150,000 to develop a recovery strategy in the wake of coal’s decline.

A Just Transition

As coal reforms advance, WildEarth Guardians is calling on the Department of the Interior to make “Just Transition” its number one goal and priority. To this end, Guardians is urging Interior to, at a minimum, adopt the following policies:

  • Raising royalty and rental rates that are assessed for publicly owned coal production and invest the increased returns into community support initiatives.  Although Congressional support may be required to authorize spending funds in this way, this Administration and the next should do whatever it takes to convince Congress to lend its support.
  • Establishing an Economic Transition Fund, which would be sustained by an increase in reimbursement fees charged by the Interior Department when processing coal-related applications.  Under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, Interior has authority to recover reasonable costs associated with its coal management program and to appropriate and spend such monies.  This Fund should be used provide support for economic planning and development in coal-dependent communities.
  • Setting deadlines for full coal mine reclamation to ensure taxpayers are not on the hook for cleanups, to restore fish and wildlife habitat, and to secure reclamation jobs.
  • Prioritizing support and assistance to help communities transition. In addition to securing funds and making them available, the Department of the Interior can play a key role in helping direct communities to support, steering resources to support conservation and research projects in or near communities, encouraging renewable energy development on public lands.

This is not to say that the key to a just transition lies solely with the Department of the Interior. It also means holding the coal industry accountable before its inevitable exit. Critically, companies, including Arch, Peabody, and Alpha, need to commit resources to economic development, job retraining, and overall transition. Rather than taking the money and running, companies must get behind an orderly end to their operations, rather than let their collapse wreak havoc.

The Path Forward

In an editorial in early April 2016, the Casper Star Tribune said that, “Now is the time to think about possibilities.” Speaking to the coal layoffs that have befallen the State of Wyoming,” the paper wrote, “We should use our time the way it will do the most good: considering solutions and thinking of what we can do for these hardworking Wyomingites and our state, and then making it happen. The soul and economic future of Wyoming depend on it.”

Indeed, for all of us in the American West, the time for possibilities and solutions are at hand.  And with the Interior Department’s coal reform efforts moving forward, our window of opportunity has opened wider than ever. Right now, the soul and economic future of not just Wyoming, but the rest of the western United States depends on embracing a just transition.

For years, miners have kept the lights on in this nation. It’s the least we all can do now to help ensure they and their communities are taken care of in this era of energy transformation.

More Resources:

Read the High Country News article on our Campaign to Keep Coal in the Ground >>

Check out our series of interactive maps on our publicly owned coal >>

Read our statement on the recent Arch and Peabody layoffs in Wyoming >>