By Kayla Zacharias
For many years, coal was the primary energy source for communities across the United States. In regions with significant reserves, coal mining has not only provided an economic base, but often became central to the identity of mining communities. As alternative energy sources become cheaper to produce than coal, and as stricter environmental regulations are put in place to combat climate change and pollution, many coal-dependent communities will be faced with the challenge of reimagining their future.
The term “just transition” is now heard frequently in discussions surrounding the shift away from carbon-intensive energy production, although there are several definitions for the term. In some sense, everyone is concerned about compensating affected individuals and families for losses, but who is to be compensated, and how, can become a sticking point.
To some, a just transition means supporting workers who are negatively impacted by the disappearance of coal mining jobs in their communities. To others, a just transition means providing reparations to residents near mines or power plants whose health has been negatively impacted by environmental pollution and poor air quality.
In 2019, Gov. Polis signed HB 19-1314, which created the Office of Just Transition and tasked an advisory committee of stakeholders and legislators with developing an action plan. Colorado’s Just Transition Action Plan, which was released Dec. 31, 2020, focuses mostly on workers.
Supporting the state’s coal workers through the transition is essential, as more than 1,700 mines have operated in Colorado during the past 160 years, and many towns still rely on mining, transporting and burning coal for their livelihoods. Currently, six coal mines and seven coal-fired power plants operate in Colorado, but most have plans to shut down by 2030.
However, as the country (and the world) turn their attention to addressing environmental justice and racism, some question whether Colorado’s Just Transition Action Plan does enough to address the adverse impacts experienced by residents who live near energy production operations.
According to HB 19-1314, “Colorado must ensure that the clean energy economy fulfills a moral commitment to assist the workers and communities that have powered Colorado for generations, as well as the disproportionately impacted communities who have borne the costs of coal power pollution for decades, and to thereby support a just and inclusive transition.”
Despite this acknowledgement in the bill, disproportionately impacted communities are hardly mentioned throughout the Action Plan. The advisory committee recognized that the Legislature wanted them to consider issues related to environmental justice; however, they believe that those issues have a broader context than the rest of their work, and suggest that the Office of Just Transition participates in interagency efforts rather than creating their own isolated approach. The office will continue to rely on advice from the Disproportionately Impacted Communities subcommittee, according to the plan.
Surely, environmental justice issues should be addressed throughout all levels of government, and coordinating efforts could streamline the process of addressing these issues. But is passing off the responsibility to someone else an appropriate response from the Just Transition Advisory Committee? Colorado has long been a leader in addressing climate change and other environmental issues; perhaps it’s time for us to step up to the plate and be a leader in rectifying issues of racism and environmental justice.