EDF and Resources for the Future reviewed existing environmental remediation and infrastructure policies that can support communities affected by the transition to a clean economy. This report is the second in a joint series on ensuring fairness for fossil fuel workers and communities in transition.
When a fossil fuel plant or mine shuts down, jobs and economic prosperity are lost — but often, the pollution stays. Communities across the U.S. reliant on fossil fuels — and those located near them — have dealt with the dangerous air and water pollution that abandoned oil wells, coal mines and coal-powered plants can leave behind.
Furthermore, the closure of a local power plant, mine or other high-carbon industry can result in a loss of government revenue that funds infrastructure that communities rely on, like roads and clean water, safe and intact. And both consequences of this loss — pollution and aging infrastructure — further worsen the potential for new economic opportunities that can revitalize a town.
Existing policies designed to restore communities, by cleaning up abandoned fossil fuel sites or building vital infrastructure, can also bring the added benefits of creating jobs and economic opportunities to fossil fuel workers and communities in transition.
Daniel Raimi of RFF, the lead author of this report, uncovers several key findings on how federal environmental remediation and infrastructure policies can help ensure a fair transition to a clean economy.
On environmental remediation policies
Environmental remediation programs, such as Superfund, Brownfields and oil and gas restoration programs, can provide near-term job opportunities and restore sites to economic use in regions with a history of pollution:
- The federal government plays a large role in addressing polluted sites across the United States, including abandoned mines and oil and gas wells. In the context of an energy transition, these programs could be enhanced and targeted towards workers and communities negatively affected by such a transition.
- There are millions of sites in the U.S. in need of environmental remediation, and emerging evidence points to poorly understood risks from sources such as dioxins, agricultural runoff, coal ash, and more. In many cases, remediation needs are found in and around regions that have been historically dependent on coal, oil, and natural gas production, offering the potential for new investment to support these workers and communities.
- There is strong evidence that remediation projects increase local employment in the short-term, but it is not clear whether those employment benefits continue after a site has been remediated or restored. It is also unclear whether remediation projects primarily support workers in affected communities or workers from other locations. More research on the long-term employment effects of environmental remediation projects would be valuable.
- Most evidence suggests that remediating polluted sites increases local property values. This could particularly benefit fossil fuel communities and environmental justice communities, which may experience pollution at greater rates than the broader population.
- Some evidence suggests that environmental remediation projects may disproportionately occur in white communities, and that remediation programs could lead to “environmental gentrification” (when pollution clean up increases local property values and attracts wealthier residents to a previously polluted or disenfranchised neighborhood). This highlights the importance of considering equity and justice in the design and implementation of environmental remediation policies. It also raises the question of how to prioritize which sites to focus on for remediation.
On infrastructure policies
Infrastructure programs for highways, public transport and clean water also have the potential to support employment and economic growth in communities heavily dependent on fossil fossils:
- Transportation infrastructure projects create local construction and related jobs, and they can also induce longer-term economic development by making transportation easier and cheaper. Improving transportation networks in rural energy communities can enhance their physical access to markets, providing a stronger foundation for future economic growth.
- Affordable access to clean water is essential for any community. If fossil fuel communities experience declining tax revenue and/or population, it may become difficult for local governments to finance water system maintenance and upgrades. In addition, these communities may be at greater risk due to the legacy of pollution that sometimes accompanies fossil energy extraction, processing and combustion.
- The design, implementation and enforcement of infrastructure policies will shape whether, and to what extent, future infrastructure spending reduces or exacerbates historical inequities. Low income and communities of color have experienced environmental injustices often related to the siting, maintenance, or administration of public infrastructure.
- It’s also important to note: Economists have debated whether infrastructure investment increases overall economic activity or simply redistributes that activity. While the former outcome is clearly preferable across society, the latter may also be valuable in the context of moving to a clean economy, if new infrastructure serves communities negatively affected by a shift away from fossil energy.