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How Democrats Can Win Coal Country—and the 2020 Election

The fossil fuel industry is hemorrhaging jobs in swing states.

George Frey/Getty Images

It’s been a rough spring for America’s long-shrinking coal industry. The United States is down to just 43,800 coal jobs, and as the coronavirus shutdowns continue to eat into energy demand, coal consumption is predicted to drop 23 percent through 2020. For the first time ever, the U.S. Energy Information Agency projects the U.S. will get more of its electricity from renewable sources than coal this year; experts now predict that the coal industry may never recover. While that’s good news for the atmosphere, it’s bad news both for the places that mine coal and for the places that burn it: Coal-fired power plants, now being phased out at a steady clip, can be some of the only jobs available in rural areas. The outlook for jobs in the oil and gas sector isn’t much rosier. An analysis recently released by Baker Hughes found that the number of domestic oil rigs in operation has dropped from around 800 a year ago to just 258, with oilfield services companies expected to shed one million jobs.

Many of the states suffering from fossil fuel job losses are also battleground states in the 2020 election. Colorado, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Virginia are all swing states home to sizable extractive sectors. Joe Biden’s campaign has further identified Texas—the hub of the oil and gas industry and facing mass layoffs—as a potential battleground state. As the Trump administration continues to shower fossil fuel executives with handouts, there’s an opportunity for Democrats to draw a stark contrast: offering tangible relief to the communities hit hardest by the fossil fuel industry’s crises while Trump bails out the industry’s bosses. So far, nobody in party leadership appears keen to do that.

The Republican Party seem to be offering Democrats an easy way to score political points: Despite frequently using coal industry employees as props on the campaign trail, the Trump administration has been cool to calls from the United Mineworkers and coal-state senators to extend protection to underground miners, whose close-quarters work has been deemed essential. White House loyalties, that is, lie mainly with fossil fuel executives, whose interests aren’t exactly simpatico with those of their employees. The National Mine Association—a trade group for coal companies—pleaded for Congress and the White House to slash the amount mine operators must pay into the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund and the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund in what became the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or Cares Act, citing economic hardship. The latter helps pay the expenses of some 25,000 retired miners who—after years unearthing coal dust and silica—are now vulnerable to Covid-19’s attack on the respiratory system. The NMA didn’t get its wish on that but will keep pushing. As for the oil and gas industry, Bloomberg recently reported that Diamond Offshore Drilling first exploited a provision in the March stimulus bill to reap a $9.7 million tax refund, then immediately tried to funnel that same amount to four of the company’s top executives through bankruptcy court. Diamond laid off 102 employees in April.

Democrats aren’t doing as much as they could to direct funds to unemployed workers rather than their ex-bosses. The ReWIND Act, introduced and endorsed earlier this month by several progressives in Congress, has tried to stop oil and gas executives from squirreling away stimulus funds meant for struggling workers and municipalities. Yet even some of the more expansive stimulus ideas from congressional Democrats have avoided tackling the hemorrhaging of fossil fuel jobs head-on. In oil, gas, and especially coal, there are potentially millions of jobs that simply aren’t coming back.

As I’ve previously written, there are relatively simple and environmentally friendly ways for Democrats to remedy the situation. The U.S. currently contains 3.1 million abandoned oil and gas wells around the country, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, with 2.2 million of those “unplugged,” leaking prodigious amounts of methane—a potent greenhouse gas—into the atmosphere while threatening local air and water quality. Fossil fuel companies are theoretically supposed to pay for that work, but the amounts set for them haven’t been changed in decades at either the federal or state level, as Politico’s Zack Colman reported last week. (Lawmakers in Wyoming and North Dakota are now attempting to lower the already paltry amounts industry pays through bonds for that cleanup.)

The Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, which represents the governments of 31 fossil fuel–producing states, has requested that the Trump administration furnish stimulus funds through the Department of Energy to keep laid-off industry employees working by paying them to plug so-called orphan wells. A recent report from the Center for American Progress has found that a $2 billion federal investment in plugging orphan wells could yield between 14,000 and 24,000 jobs. As for the coal industry, with North Dakota’s largest coal-fired power plant facing closure, the Dakota Resource Council has proposed putting industry employees to work in environmental reclamation, which could also provide jobs on the site of shuttered coal-fired power plants in Minnesota and elsewhere.

Investments in carbon sequestration and geothermal technology could provide both shovel-ready work in the short term and long-term career prospects for oil and gas industry workers, whose existing expertise can be used to store carbon underground and access no-carbon energy, helping to satisfy climate goals for comparable wages and benefits. Investments to scale up an array of green technologies are popular with voters, and extending the Production and Investment Tax Credits for wind and solar power could buoy jobs in the clean energy sector, which have also taken a hit from the coronavirus but are expected to recover as demand returns. Poor housing stock, moreover, is a potentially endless source of weatherization jobs, which the Department of Energy and Department of Agriculture already provide support for. Those programs, too, could be expanded. A comprehensive federal jobs program could provide meaningful, living-wage work for the many people in coal country and oilfields who don’t happen to work in mines or on rigs but have found themselves unemployed as the oil-based economy collapses around them. And all that’s just scratching the surface.

The gains of these kinds of policies would be concentrated in places where Democrats have historically had trouble gaining support. They could provide an off-ramp from the emissions-heavy fossil fuel industry, while securing the livelihoods of those ensnared in it. This, of course, means admitting something Democrats have been reticent to acknowledge: that fossil fuels are not a permanent fixture of the economy, and that the path away from them needs to be well funded and managed in order to prevent suffering in communities that rely on the income and tax revenues incumbent fuels produce.

The implications here could reach well beyond November 2020. Republicans have reliably brandished fossil fuel workers’ livelihoods as a cudgel against any sort of climate action. The political interests of fossil fuel employees and their bosses have been treated these last few decades as one and the same, with coal and oil barons claiming to represent their struggling workers, sometimes in step with extractive industry unions. Cleaving some of those awkward, carbon-intensive coalitions apart could be key to getting any adequate climate legislation through. But winning over extractive workers’ votes won’t happen if Democrats don’t provide workers with proof of concept that a so-called just transition is possible. The window for demonstrating good faith with these voters won’t be open forever.