Accelerating the shift to a clean economy will unleash a wealth of new job opportunities in renewable energy, manufacturing and infrastructure. But what will happen to the workers, families and communities dependent on fossil fuels as a key economic driver? How will they be protected and prepared?

The ongoing decline in coal jobs and its impact on communities — from West Virginia to Wyoming — highlights the need for proactive policies. It also provides relevant examples of what could happen to other fossil fuel workers and communities if serious action to ensure a fair transition is not taken.

Read our full series on fairness for workers and communities

How are energy jobs changing?

Over the last century, fossil fuels — coal, oil, and natural gas — have dominated the energy mix in the United States and powered sectors across the economy.

But that mix is changing. In the last decade, the US has seen a 40% decline in coal-fired power generation, one of the most significant uses of coal. And coal mining has been in decline well before the last decade: Over 100,000 coal jobs have been lost since the mid-1980s.

Map showing US coal plant retirements since 2000
Coal plants in 278 counties have retired since 2000. This map shows these counties and nearby counties (within 5 miles). Source: EIA.
US coal mining employment graph
Coal mining jobs have declined by two-thirds since 1985. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The impacts of COVID-19 on the energy sector have exacerbated the trend of job displacement that was already underway due to the shifting economics of coal and increased automation. US coal production in the spring of 2020 fell 17% lower than the first quarter of 2019 and over a dozen coal-fired plants were forced to shut down within that same period.

What has been driving this trend?

The declining costs of natural gas and renewable energy have been the main drivers in coal’s decline. Over the last decade, wind energy prices have fallen 70% and solar photovoltaics have fallen 89% on average, outcompeting coal.

And in 2019, US renewable energy consumption surpassed coal for the first time in over 130 years.

Graph showing US coal and renewable energy consumption
US renewable energy consumption surpassed coal for the first time in 2019. Source: EIA

Prior to the pandemic, renewable energy was one of the nation's strongest sectors, adding jobs 70 percent faster than the overall economy. As renewable energy becomes even more competitive and policymakers increase efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions in line with the best available science, jobs in the clean energy sector will greatly expand.

What will happen to fossil fuel regions?

The rise of a clean economy — and new job opportunities — is only part of the story. Workers and communities reliant on fossil fuels for jobs and economic prosperity need to be protected and prepared in this transition.

Unfortunately, many coal regions have been — and currently are — suffering from chronic job loss and other hardships. These regions provide relevant examples of what could happen to other fossil fuel-reliant communities without action. When a coal plant or mine closes, it creates a ripple effect beyond workers to entire communities, including families, teachers, local business owners, health care facilities and more.

Boone County, WV public revenue and employment
Boone County, WV revenue has fallen as employment has fallen. Sources: EIA and West Virginia State Auditor's Office

Boone County, West Virginia: Local government reliant on taxes from coal operations to build roads, schools and other public resources saw their funding decline by half in the past five years from coal mine closures.

Floyd County, Kentucky: Workers who were laid off from Redhawk mine not only lost their income, they also lost their health insurance and benefits, putting their families health and well being at risk.

Powder River Basin, Wyoming: Businesses and rural health care facilities near mines are in jeopardy from the compounding economic crises of the pandemic and the loss of coal jobs.

Within the next few decades, the more than 300 counties with active coal plants or mines will lose a significant source of tax revenue and jobs. These communities need proactive plans that can prepare them for new opportunities in a clean workforce and other viable industries.

Currently operating coal plants, mines, and nearby counties in the US
Currently operating coal plants, mines, and nearby counties. Source: EIA

The effects of this transition span beyond coal. Workers and communities reliant on other fossil fuels and dependent industries — from oil and gas to chemicals manufacturing and rail shipping — need supportive policies and programs as economic opportunities shift.

How do we help communities in transition?

Policymakers need to ensure that all workers and communities can thrive in a clean economy with good paying, union jobs and benefits.

To fully support fossil fuel workers and communities facing transition, policymakers should consider the full scope of impact, including potential losses to families and surrounding businesses and counties. EDF and Resources for the Future are partnering on a research series that can give policymakers the insights they need to ensure fairness for fossil fuel workers and communities.

Read our full series on fairness for workers and communities