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This Week in Climate: The state of the just transition

Tuesday, September 20th, 2022: Its Climate Week in New York this week, and we’re looking at the state of the just transition across the United States.
Julian Moore
Sep 20, 2022 8 min read
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The just transition is one of the thorniest issues in climate. Renewable energy is creating hundreds of thousands of jobs across the world, especially in the United States where clean energy job growth is outpacing overall employment.

But that’s cold comfort to the workers at fossil fuel plants and mines, many of whom will inevitably be displaced as oil, gas and coal are phased out.

Some states saw this coming and set up just transition plans. Others still are still lagging behind, and this week the difference between the two was on full display.

Coal Cool-off

Rumors of a coal comeback have been greatly exaggerated— at least in the Sun Belt.

This week, the coal mine that supplies the San Juan power plant in New Mexico shut its doors for good, casting doubt on a proposal to keep the coal plant open.

The San Juan plant was headed for decommissioning until this June when a group of investors acquired it with Enchant Energy, a carbon capture start-up promising to churn out “clean coal”.

Their pitch: attach a $1.2 billion carbon capture apparatus to the plant that would wrangle no less than 95% of the plant’s emissions. The public would pick up the bulk of that price tag in the form of 45Q tax credits, grants from the 2021 infrastructure bill and Department of Energy loans.

The “clean coal” pitch appears to have fallen flat. Perhaps because the proposed cost of the carbon capture system has climbed to $1.4 billion, a number Enchant’s CEO says is probably “a little higher” with current inflation.

Or perhaps because regulators read one of the many, overlapping studies that have demonstrated carbon capture does not work. Even at a 100% capture rate, a 2019 Stanford study found that carbon capture is an economic and environmental net-negative due to huge costs and the pervasive issue of air pollution.

S&P Global’s analysis shows that in a best-case scenario, 21% of the carbon saved is re-emitted to power the capture system.

And then there’s the recent study done on the San Juan plant itself. A 72% capture rate would be a highly optimistic scenario according to energy analysts at IEEFA— and that’s before counting in the methane leaks, energy demands and still-climbing costs associated with the plan.

New Mexico has been planning for this day. Miners from the retired mine at San Juan will benefit from the state’s just transition law to support their retirement

Unjust Transition

Meanwhile in Alabama, a strike by coal miners is reaching its eighteenth month with no end in sight.

Workers at the Brookwood coal mine agreed to take a pay cut back in 2015, when the struggling mine was acquired by new owners focused on turning a profit. That agreement saved mining jobs in the short term, but now that the plant is making money again workers are demanding a return to the status quo.

Mine operator Warrior Met Energy seems to be content with the non-union staff that have operated the plant since the strike began.

The result is a deadlock that is putting miners in an impossible political bind.

Democrats, with one all-too-notable exception, have committed to end coal across the country in the pursuit of climate goals. That has created an opening for Republicans, who seized on the Democrats’ position by waxing poetic and writing campaign hagiographies to coal miners.

But Republicans are consistently anti-union, and coal mining jobs declined during Trump’s presidency despite a host of promises to the contrary.

That leaves striking coal miners with few options, and even fewer trustworthy advocates as their union’s strike funds are stretched.

Bernie Sanders attended a rally in support of the miners earlier this year, briefly putting a spotlight on the conflict. But the miners’ protest hasn’t garnered the same attention as an effort to unionize Amazon workers at a “fulfilment center” just down the road in Bessemer.

Unlike New Mexico, and very much like the rest of the United States, Alabama has no just transition law, and no apparent plans to pass one.

So long as that’s the case, the Brookwood strikes will represent a common theme as workers find their place in a zero-carbon economy.

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The Author

Julian Moore