Coal Communities Seek Their Post-Coal Future

Heidi Binko, Executive Director of the Just Transition Fund, discusses the challenges coal communities face in adapting to a post-coal future, and strategies for economic transition.

Over the past decade the number of workers directly employed in the U.S. coal industry has fallen by half, as coal has been replaced by cheaper sources of energy such as natural gas and renewable power. From the Appalachian mountains in the East, to the Powder River Basin and tribal communities in the West, the continued decline of the coal industry has been devastating, depriving workers of livelihoods, and towns of revenue to support essential services.

Yet coal communities often have a deep sense of place, and the drive to remain, reinvent, and rebuild is strong.

Heidi Binko, Executive Director of the Just Transition Fund, discusses the impact on coal-dependent communities when the industries that sustain them leave, and looks at efforts of the same communities to find new paths of development and create economically diverse and sustainable futures. She also offers a view of strategies that may help communities facing transition.

Andy Stone: Welcome to the Energy Policy Now podcast from the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m Andy Stone. Over the past decade, the number of workers directly employed in the US coal industry has fallen by half, as coal has been replaced by cheaper sources of energy such as natural gas and renewable power. From the Appalachian Mountains in the East, to the Powder River Basin and tribal communities in the West, the continued decline of the coal industry has been devastating, depriving workers of livelihoods and towns of revenue to support essential services. Yet coal communities often have a deep sense of place and the drive to remain, reinvent, and rebuild is strong.

On today’s podcast, we’ll take a look at what happens to coal-dependent communities when the industries that sustain them leave. We’ll look at efforts of the same communities to find new paths of development and, it’s hoped, create economically diverse and sustainable futures.

My guest is Heidi Binko, Executive Director of the Just Transition Fund, which is an organization that provides access to funding and technical assistance for coal communities. Heidi will discuss the needs of these communities and offer a view of what tends to work and what doesn’t when they transition away from a coal economy. Heidi, welcome to the podcast.

Heidi Binko: Thank you, Andy. I’m so excited to be here.

Stone: Now you are the co-founder of the Just Transition Fund. Tell us how the fund began and about its mission.

Binko: Sure, starting back probably around 2011 or 2012, I was having conversations with my colleagues in philanthropy about coal communities and the shuttering of coal mines and coal plants. We were looking around at the time and seeing that philanthropy was not really doing much of anything to address what we saw as a huge economic problem that was coming in these places. We knew that plants were going to close. We knew that direct jobs were going to be lost, but I think what philanthropy didn’t generally understand at the time is the magnitude of the economic devastation.

So in addition to the direct job loss, you usually have indirect job loss in these communities. Oftentimes there are communities that we work with where there can be a coal-fired power plant that closes. For every job you lose, you can lose sometimes three or four in the community. And then in addition to both the direct and the indirect job loss, you have a huge impact on the tax base. Both coal plants and mines are big property tax and severance tax providers in these communities, and so we work with communities across the country where the coal plant is the biggest tax provider. And when it has closed, local governments lose anywhere between 70 and 80% of revenue.

It’s a really big economic problem, and no one in philanthropy really is doing much to address it. And so we were really paying attention to the issue. We were following it, starting to do some organizing in philanthropy on it, and then we ended up deciding to start the fund in 2015, after President Obama announced his power program, which was the first time that federal funds were available to help coal communities in transition. And so we really jumped on the opportunity. We thought this was a good opportunity to not only engage philanthropy but also show agencies, like the Appalachian Regional Commission, that there was a lot of innovation happening in these communities. So six funders, six foundations banned together. We provided, I think it was maybe $500,000 in seed funding, and that launched the fund. And we’ve been at it ever since.

Stone: Now do you fund it directly, or do you work with other organizations to provide funding to these communities?

Binko: We do two things. We make direct grants and direct investments in these communities, and we also provide technical assistance. That technical assistance usually is in the form of transition planning and strategy support that helps local leaders and local officials and community-based organizations. When they’re stuck around a closure, and they’re not sure what to do, we help them plan and get started.

Stone: You know, when we think about coal communities, we think about the coal mines being the major employer for those communities. Is that always the case, and does that also extend to communities that are built around, say, coal-fired power plants?

Binko: It does. When we started the fund, we had the expressed mission of helping communities where either coal plants or coal mines had closed. The reason why is even though there are some contextual differences, but the economic distress is very, very similar, and the way you go about addressing the problem is also very similar. So for that reason, we were really thinking about the problem in terms of an energy system, and we decided to address both of those.

It’s interesting that you pull up the example of coal mining, because a lot of times people just assume that we work in Appalachia. We have done a significant amount of work in Appalachia, and of course when people think about the traditional coal miner, they think of West Virginia. But that’s not the case. Coal communities, broadly defined, affect a lot of different people and a lot of different communities around the country. So we do a lot of work with tribal communities, Navajo and Hopi in Arizona, and then the Crow and the Northern Cheyenne in Montana. We work with a lot of power plant communities throughout the Rust Belt. We work with coal mining communities in places like the Illinois Basin, Powder River Basin, and Southwest Pennsylvania. So there are a lot of different types of geographies that are affected by the problem.

Stone: Is the level of the stress for these communities the same across the country? I’m originally from Ohio, so when I think about the coal community, Appalachia immediately comes to mind, but are we seeing the same level of distress in the East, in the West? Is it everywhere?

Binko: Yes, it’s everywhere. Just to give you an example, the coal problem in the United States was really big for us to tackle. So what we decided to do when we launched the fund is take a data-driven approach to figuring out where we were going to work that was really rooted in equity. What we did was launch this analysis to identify the communities that were economically hardest hit, that had the most at-risk populations. We essentially wanted to go where the problem was the hardest.

There are a couple of things to think about when you take a look at the results of the analysis. The first thing is that it’s a big problem for rural communities. And that makes sense because when these entities close, they’re often the only game in town, and when they close, they have an out-sized impact on the local economy. That’s one of the big findings that comes out.

In terms of your question about economic distress, it’s pretty severe in a lot of places around the country, and there’s not necessarily any rhyme nor reason. You can’t really say, “Ah, Eastern places are impacted hard, but Western are not.” There are high levels of distress everywhere. Look at the Navajo and Hopi. The Navajo generating station is a plant that closed in Arizona, and along with it, the resulting Kayenta mine closed. And when that closed, it took away 80% of the Hopi Tribal Nation’s budget and 25% of the Navajo Nation’s budget. I’ve got a lot of examples like that. It’s a lot of distress for a lot of people in a pretty big geographical area.

Stone: I happened to listen in on a conversation this past weekend that really got to the heart of this. There was a woman who was talking who was from Kentucky, from a coal community, and she was talking about — actually this was very interesting — food deserts in these communities. There weren’t actually food stores because the coal companies had come into many of these communities that were once agricultural, had said, “Okay, we’re going to set up mines. Everybody is going to work in the mines. We’re going to provide everything you need, from food to whatever it may be” — I guess through their own stores. So when the mines left, not only did those mines close, but a lot of the infrastructure to support everyday life went with them, as I understand.

Binko: That’s exactly right, and that brings up a couple of points that I think are probably important for your listeners to know. The first thing is that there is an idea out there, a meme, if you will, that people think we’re going to close down all the coal plants, and we’re going to turn on clean energy. And from an economic development and diversification standpoint, that is just simply not true. We really need to think about engaging all the different solutions that are available. The experts that have been working on this for years will say there’s no single silver bullet, and it’s true. Just like you would diversify your financial portfolio, to have a strong, vibrant economy, you need investment in a number of different sectors.

So that means, like at the JTF, we are looking at solutions in the sustainable agriculture sector. It gets at actually some of those food issues that she was talking about. We’re looking at solutions in the reclamation sector, the reclamation economy, knowledge sector economy. Clean energy is absolutely important, but it’s a piece, so I think that’s really important to know.

Stone: I have one more contextual question for you. Many industries have declined over the course of American history. The steel industry is one prominent industry that comes to mind. Is the coal community experience notably different from those industries that declined earlier?

Binko: It’s different, and it’s the same. Let’s first talk about how it’s the same. I get asked this question a lot. It’s the same because during that ten or twelve-year period in the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s, when we saw all of those steel industries and steel plants closing, when they went away, when those plants closed, they left the communities devastated. So you see a lot of the same economic issues in coal communities as you did in steel communities. So that is the same.

What is different about the coal community transition versus the transition away from — I won’t even say the “transition away from steel.” What’s different from the coal community transition as compared to the closures of coal plants in the late ’70s and early ’80s — there are a few factors. First is geography. The closure of steel plants was pretty isolated in a certain geography, whereas when you talk about coal plants and coal mines in the United States, you’re talking about closures in almost every state, in terms of coal plants. Coal mines are different, but in coal plants, they are everywhere.

So the problem, unlike timber, steel, tobacco, paper — any of those other transitions — the problem with coal and energy is that they’re so geographically dispersed. That’s one difference. The second difference that we’re dealing with today with coal communities that community leaders in the ’70s and ’80s didn’t have to deal with, with steel is that today, we’re trying to combat this existential threat of climate change. So there is a big reason to help figure out how we’re going to transition away from these things, because we know that we cannot keep up with the same level of carbon emissions that we’ve been having. So that changes the game.

And then I would say lastly is again, this is a difference from those closures until now. I think now you’re seeing both the Biden administration and the leaders all over the world really recognize the importance of just transition and the importance of making sure that these communities don’t get left behind. And that also was not the case when you saw steel closures. You didn’t see a lot of government investment coming in to help those places and those workers.

Stone: Let’s talk about the issue of the transition right now. I want to point out some news that came out very recently, and it came from the United Mine Workers of America, which is the union that represents miners in this country. The union released in April a document called “Preserving Coal Country,” in which it states that the transition away from coal is clearly underway, and that this transition has been very hard on coal communities. In the document, the union states that it is prepared to work with the Biden administration to support coal communities through efforts such as the development of clean energy, technologies like carbon capture and storage, and through economic aid for miners and mining communities.

And I want to just take a moment here to read what’s posted on the United Mine Workers website. This is a passage from the document that’s actually on the website itself. And it says the following: “Change is coming, whether we seek it or not. Too many inside and outside the coal fields have looked the other way when it comes to recognizing and addressing specifically what that change must be, but we can look away no longer. We must act, while acting in a way that has real, positive impact on the people who are most affected by this change.”

So Heidi, I’d like to get your thoughts on that, since you’ve been involved with this for such a long time.

Binko: Yes, the unionized workers that are engaged and hired in these plants and mines have been so affected by the problem, and I think that there is always a concern when it comes to government intervention. There’s a worry that the government isn’t going to do enough, and they aren’t going to do the right things. That bears out with experience, right? We’ve seen the government not always have the best answers when it comes to these economic adjustment programs.

So I think it’s really important for these ideas to be heard. It’s really important for unionized voices to be at the table. And again, I understand the skepticism about how the federal government is going to handle this, but it’s one of the reasons why we actually created our National Economic Transition Platform, where we worked with labor, we worked with economic justice, economic development, workforce development groups all around the country to come together, recognizing that this is a problem that affects a lot of different people. It affects unionized workers. It affects non-unionized workers. It affects community members. It affects people who live near these sites. It’s a big problem that is tough to deal with, and one of the first things that we always talk about that’s the most important to do is to make sure that we engage community voices first and foremost. And that’s where we have, I think, a huge amount of overlap with the UMWA.

Stone: Let’s talk about that National Economic Transition Platform which the Just Transition Fund developed with many stakeholders in and around the coal industry. As you’ve just alluded to, each coal community has its own unique circumstances, and each coal community must find its own path forward. There’s no real template for this. Can you tell us about the platform and how communities might begin to find their own particular path forward?

Binko: Yes, absolutely. Just to take a step back, when Hillary Clinton was running for president, she had a very ambitious $30-billion plan for coal communities. And her transition team, I think, was asking some very good questions of the field. There were a number of us who were engaged back in transition at that time, and we were thinking, “You know, we want to be ready the next time the opportunity comes around.” So that was one of the ideas behind NET.

The other sort of galvanizing force, if you will, is our work with the Just Transition Fund over the last five, six, seven years. And by that I mean, and I already mentioned to you, that we work in a lot of different types of communities — Illinois Basin. We work with Navajo, Appalachia, folks in Minnesota, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana — different communities. And what has really stuck with me over the years is the fact that even though these communities need different things at the end of the day, there is still a considerable amount of overlap of high-level similarities that really capture what they need to deal with the transition.

Building on that, we thought, “Well, what if we pulled together local leaders from a number of different geographical places, representing a number of different stakeholder groups? What if we bring them together to articulate what is needed by the federal government for an ambitious new federal coal transition program?” So think something like Obama’s power program, but something bigger and more comprehensive that really addresses these problems in a much bigger way.

And so that’s essentially what we did. We launched our National Economic Transition Platform in January of 2019. It was almost a two-year engagement process. We held listening sessions in the regions. We had a big digital engagement process, and we had formed a planning team or a planning committee that was comprised of labor, economic development, small business professionals, people that ran CDFIs, workforce development professionals, some environmental and economic justice groups — just a really good cross-section of people. And we pulled them together to draft a platform and to take all of that feedback and come out with the platform and release that. And we did that. We released the platform in June of 2020. Essentially the platform has 7 tenets, and without going into the details of the platform, essentially what we called for is a combination of economic development and diversification, workforce and infrastructure supports, to really make sure that these communities have the investment that they need in key areas of infrastructure to then go ahead and tackle the problem.

Stone: So to what extent does Biden’s $2-trillion infrastructure proposal align with the recommendations that are in the National Economic Transition Platform? Is there anything that you’d like to see that’s not there? Does it align with the recommendations?

Binko: It does. There is a good amount of overlap. So one of the things that we asked for in the beginning was the creation of a task group or a task force to look at the issue. And of course with Biden’s executive order on January 27th, they created the Interagency Working Group on coal mines and power plants and economic revitalization to address the problems. So that was a really good start.

One of the other things that we felt really strongly about is to make sure that the people who are most affected by the problem — the local leaders who have already developed creative, innovative and workforce solutions — are really listened to. The Biden administration has done a lot since the release of the executive order, up until the release of the report, which just happened a couple of days ago, to start to listen to affected stakeholders. Within a couple of months, they’re going to be starting listening sessions. So that’s a really good step.

We’re seeing investments to create good union jobs, which we called for in the platform. We’re seeing investments to really enable communities to do the longer-term economic development diversification that they need, because at the end of the day, this is really about strengthening local economies.

And then the other thing that I would say is really, really vitally important is we’re seeing the Biden administration advocate for increased investment in infrastructure in these places. Just to name it briefly, broadband, for example. Broadband is one piece of infrastructure that these communities need, but they’ve also suffered from decades of under-investment in other critical areas of infrastructure like education and health. So it’s just one of those problems where all of these issues are tied up together, and it’s really hard to focus on strengthening the local economy if you don’t have broadband access, if you don’t have healthy people, and if you don’t have schools where people can be educated. So it’s a tough nut to crack, but they really recognize that, and I think that’s a really important start.

Stone: As you’ve just mentioned, there are many redevelopment and employment solutions that have been proposed, either in the Biden plan, in your plan. And this has actually been a conversation that has been going on for quite a number of years now. These can include work and land reclamation, development of clean energy, and also you often hear about retraining for tech jobs, and that has often gotten a black eye. People said, “That’s not really adequate or appropriate for many of these communities.” How do you know what transition options or strategies are really viable or a good fit for a given community?

Binko: Yes, so I think it really all starts with looking at the assets of a place. The solutions that we invest in are all place-based strategies, meaning that the local community, local leaders have taken a look, and they’ve said, “What is it about our local economy, our local region — what assets do we have here that we could build on?” And then going from there. So when you think about clean energy, for example, clean energy is always a piece — not the only piece — but it’s always a piece. In a place like Eastern Kentucky, it’s going to be solar energy. In a place like Wyoming, it’s going to be wind. And again, where does that stem from? That stems from the assets of a place.

One of the sectors that I’m really excited about is investment in reclamation and remediation, and that’s a really interesting strategy because you have often former power plant or coal miner workers who have the skill sets needed to do those clean-up jobs. And what’s interesting about jobs in that sector is that people can be put immediately to work, and have a nice, almost a bridge job, if you will, to those longer-term economic, development, and diversification strategies that are often needed.

The last thing that I’ll say is about tech jobs. I hear that a lot. That’s been kind of a famous meme. Like, “What are we going to do? Just train former coal miners to code.” And I think it’s laughed off sometimes. What I think we also need to think about is the growing promise of the knowledge economy, and we need to think about how we define and bound the problem. If we are truly going to address this problem, yes we’re taking care of the workers of today, but we’re also thinking about what’s going to work in those communities for the next ten, twenty, thirty, forty years. You don’t just plan for two years. You plan for the situation you want twenty or thirty years from now.

So to the extent that we are also thinking about the next generation, tech solutions are a really viable alternative. Now, they are not a viable alternative when you have a workforce or workers that are maybe nearing retirement, anyway. That’s not a realistic solution, to take somebody who’s 55 or 60, and they’ve been doing the same job their whole life and try to re-skill them with something as different as that. But I think depending on the context, it absolutely can work. Going back to my point earlier, there really is no silver bullet, so we really have to think about who we are trying to help. What are the assets of a place? And how can we really invest in a range of different solutions to get the local economy vibrant and working?

Stone: It’s interesting what you said about broadband internet access. If you’re looking for jobs of the future in any type of industry, that access really is critical. So you’re saying that that is one of the components of what’s going to be needed to be provided to these communities to give them a path forward?

Binko: Absolutely, and I don’t think people think about that. But think about it for a minute. We all know the FCC data is not entirely accurate, so they overestimate how many people have good internet coverage. When we see companies like Microsoft saying, “Oh, roughly 50% of Americans don’t have good access to internet.” When you take a look at transitioning coal communities, which are primarily rural, again, you can see what a significant problem this is. So in West Virginia, for example, 60% of households don’t have good access. In places like in tribal communities, the statistics are even worse.

So if you think about this on a fundamental level, if you don’t have good internet access, and it becomes both a problem of accessibility and affordability, so it’s sort of a two-pronged problem. But if you don’t have good broadband access, you cannot do economic development. Businesses don’t go where there’s no access. Inequities are only compounded because people can’t access tele-doctors, kids can’t go to school, also entrepreneurs or people — they not only can’t do remote work, they can’t even start their own businesses if they wanted to do that. So again, inequities are compounded. You can see the social and health indicators get worse in communities.

And then finally, and I think this is a note for people who are working on climate change and philanthropists, with such a significant portion of our country having problems with connectivity, how are we ever going to implement Clean Energy 2.0 solutions which depend on a smart grid, if we’ve got this problem?

So again, I’m not saying that it’s a silver bullet, because we know there aren’t any, but it’s a pretty fundamental barrier to a range of problems — economic development, equity, and climate — which really gets at the heart of this issue for transitioning communities. So I’d say it’s really important.

Stone: I can’t help but note that underwriting this whole conversation we’re having here is the idea of place and the importance of place, and the importance of maintaining these communities even as they evolve, having them move on, right? And place is so important to these communities, as I think we’ve touched on earlier. Can you tell us why, and it may seem obvious, but why place is so critically important to these communities, and why — as some might suggest, people should just get up and find jobs in other places — why that really isn’t the right option for many people in many communities.

Binko: Yes, sure. I often hear that quite a lot, and it’s really frustrating to community members when the solutions that are proposed are along the lines of, “Let’s just pay for them to have a bus ticket out of here.” These are people who have lived on the land for generations. Their families have been there for generations. Look at tribal nations. They have a connection to the land that goes back thousands of years. And so it’s really hard to leave a community when you’ve lived there your whole life, your grandmother lives there, your kids are going to school there, it’s the only home you’ve known. We shouldn’t be treating our people like that. We should be thinking about how to help them stay. And you know, it’s not the right answer for everybody. Some people want to leave, and that’s fine. But most of the communities that we speak with, when these issues come up, people are just really attached to where they grew up, whether it be the Midwest or Eastern Kentucky or the reservation. Wherever it is, there’s often a very strong tie to that place. And it really makes sense that they want to stay. I would want to. I wouldn’t want to leave. I understand.

Stone: What are the pre-conditions that might exist in a community that make a successful transition likely?

Binko: We work with a lot of communities where, again, we provide grants, and we provide technical assistance. We’ve learned over the years that the communities that experience the best outcomes are the communities that move quickly away from denial of the problem, to an acceptance of the problem, and then a willingness to act. So the best outcomes happen when people engage and plan early. There are a number of examples of that around the country. We worked with a community in Tonawanda, New York that was working to engage the community and develop a plan years before the coal plant closed. Today the plant has shut down, but they were able to help all the workers in the plant find other work. They developed a long-term economic development and diversification plan that they’re implementing, and they were even able to advocate for the State of New York to develop a state legislative solution that would provide a backstop or tax-based replacement to communities where power plants are closing.

So again, sitting in denial of these changes which are happening is really, really critical. The other important piece is having local leadership. There have been places around the country — you know, I mentioned to you we did that analysis to see who is hardest hit, and there are a couple of places that we would have loved to do work in, but once we went in and really tried to meet local people and understand what was there, there wasn’t necessarily a community-based organization or the right kind of local capacity or local leadership, and that’s the other thing you need. You need to have a person, a number of people who are willing to bring all the different stakeholders to the table to try to figure out, “What do we want to do here, and what’s coming next?” Without either of those two things, it’s really difficult, I think, to have success.

Stone: You have new industries and businesses that can be developed locally as one part of the solution, and I think there’s also an assumption here or hope here that industries from the outside will move in. So I want to ask you quite directly: What is the value proposition for industry and the private sector to get involved and to move into these transitioning communities? What makes it a particularly good opportunity, for example, for these industries to create new jobs and local business?

Binko: Yes, there’s a business case for these companies, to be sure. We speak a lot with companies that have pledged to source a hundred percent of their energy from renewable energy sources. So one of the first things that we say to them is we’re thrilled to see their climate pledges, but one of the first things we say is, “Okay, but why don’t you think about sourcing your energy from transitioning communities?” Help the communities that have been hit the hardest. That’s one type of solution. But in terms of a business case, maybe just taking a step back, maybe if I could say for a minute why the private sector is important, and then I want to answer your question.

This is such a big problem. You and I have talked a lot about it here. We’ve talked a little bit about philanthropic investment. We’ve talked a lot about public sector, federal government investment. But the truth of the matter is that we’re also going to need the private sector to address this. It’s a big problem, and what the private sector can do in these communities really can dwarf what philanthropy and the federal government can do. So when I talk with them, I think about the business case. We’re working with a really interesting organization in Southern West Virginia called Generation West Virginia, and they’ve got a couple of different programs that they’re almost merging now, if you will, to talk about solutions that could be scaled. One of their programs is they connect talented young West Virginians with jobs with employers around the state. And they’re thinking of making that available to or trying to work with companies outside of West Virginia who want to help provide jobs to West Virginians.

They also have another program that often works in conjunction with that program, which is training young people for jobs in the tech sector. So if you take both of those programs, and you think about the Amazons, the Microsofts, the Facebooks, the Googles of the world — we’ve just gone through this giant COVID experiment where we’ve been able to see that remote work works. And so why not provide jobs or create jobs in places, in rural communities and transitioning places where land is cheaper, labor is cheaper?

If you’re thinking about addressing climate change, you’re thinking about giving jobs to transitioning areas. There is a business case there. There’s a reputational benefit there. You can also think about equity, right? A lot of these communities are already economically distressed and low-income. So on this day, as we’re thinking about who has suffered, who has been left behind, these communities are really at the top of the list.

So again, that’s the argument that we make to companies about why they can invest, and again, there are other strategies like sourcing your energy from these places that are also very viable.

Stone: One of the other questions that comes up is — will these industries pay at the same level that the coal industry has paid? Coal industry jobs are relatively well paid. Can we expect that level of income from these new industries?

Binko: I think that’s impossible to say, but it’s definitely a conversation that people are raising. One of the big criticisms, if you will, about clean energy jobs is that they’re not as well paid. They’re not unionized like some of these coal jobs were. And that’s a real issue. We need to make sure that people can earn a living wage, a family-sustaining wage. So that’s definitely something that has to be addressed.

Stone: And these reclamation jobs, jumping back for a moment, these are jobs that sound like they’ll last for quite a few years but eventually all the gas wells will be capped, and the mines will be cleaned up. Is that a sort of bridge that gives time for more long-term industries to then come in?

Binko: Yes, that’s exactly the idea. Of course the amount of remediation or reclamation is going to vary by site, but the idea here is it kind of gives you a glide path. It gives you a nice transition, pardon the pun if you will, to the longer economic development and diversification strategies that sometimes can take a while.

Stone: Heidi, let me ask you one final question. Obviously there are a lot of communities involved and a long road going forward to transition. What level of investment really is going to be necessary to get the job done?

Binko: Well, much more than we have now. If you go back, and you look at the level of investment by the Obama power program that I mentioned earlier, that program, when it was introduced in fiscal year 2015 — I don’t know, maybe it was 40 or 50 million dollars. It wasn’t a lot. It was a start. That increased over the years, and the two agencies that received a good portion of the funding were the Economic Development Administration, and they reached levels of about $30 million a year for their power program which became their Assistance for Coal Communities Program. The other agency that received a good chunk of that funding was the Appalachian Regional Commission. Their level stayed pretty consistently. I think they received about $50 million a year for the life of the program.

So when you add up all of that investment, I think it’s around $500 million. From ARC, it’s a little bit more. What we’re talking about is needing investment in the billions. That’s what the EU has done through their Just Transition Fund. That’s the level of investment that other governments are looking at. Millions is not what we need. It’s really more in the billions. The Biden American Jobs Plan, his infrastructure plan, really gets at a good start. Of course, we don’t know where that will go, but the level of investment for coal communities in particular in there is much higher. It’s anywhere from 20 to 30 billion dollars. It’s a little bit difficult to tell, because the mandate of the IWG is not just coal communities. They’re looking more broadly at energy communities. But still, the level of investment is good. It’s very good. And it’s along the level of what we need.

We have not had that for a number of years, and I was thinking about this issue the other day. What’s tough about this ultimately, and this gets back to the question that you asked me, “How do we ensure that these communities can have a successful transition?” And one of the most important things we have to do is help them plan and engage early. This problem is just happening and unfolding so fast. With COVID and sort of the resulting economic problems that we had, it caused closures across oil, coal, and gas sectors to happen much more quickly. So we’ve just got this urgency now, where we’re trying to deal with the climate problem, and we’re also trying to deal with the economic collapse in these places, and we don’t have a lot of time.

So I look back at the last four years, and I just think about, “What if we had been able to really move forward with the type of investment that’s being proposed now?” We could be in a much different place. I’m really optimistic that we’re getting there.

Stone: So the communities really need the assistance as soon as possible.

Binko: That’s right.

Stone: Heidi, thanks very much for talking.

Binko: Thank you, Andy. It was really nice to chat with you today.

Stone: Today’s guest has been Heidi Binko, Executive Director of the Just Transition Fund. For more energy policy discussions and insights, check out the archive of Energy Policy Now podcasts on the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy’s website. The site also has a wealth of news, blogs, and research covering the gamut of energy and environmental policy topics. You can get updates from the Kleinman Center delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter on our home page. Thanks for listening to Energy Policy Now, and have a great day.

Heidi Binko headshot

Heidi Binko

Executive Director, Just Transition Fund
Heidi Binko is Executive Director of the Just Transition Fund, an organization that provides access to funding and technical assistance for coal communities.

Andy Stone

Energy Policy Now Host and Producer
Andy Stone is producer and host of Energy Policy Now, the Kleinman Center’s podcast series. He previously worked in business planning with PJM Interconnection and was a senior energy reporter at Forbes Magazine.