Illinois Envisions a Just Transition for Displaced Fossil Fuel Workers

In states like Illinois, America’s transition towards a clean energy economy is underway. The number of renewable energy projects has increased dramatically since the state’s 2017 implementation of the Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA). This has helped the state grow closer to reaching its U.S. Climate Alliance goals to decrease its carbon footprint 26-28% by 2025 as compared to 2005 levels, while simultaneously creating thousands of new jobs. This rising tide of renewables however, hasn’t yet lifted all boats.

Moreso due to automation of mining jobs than legislation like FEJA, which passed in a bipartisan fashion and left the coal industry relatively untouched, Illinois fossil fuel workers have been losing their jobs. Most recently, White Stallion Energy – which operates six plants in Indiana and Illinois – filed for bankruptcy and laid off all 260 of its employees. 

Though this trend has coincided with an expansion of opportunities in the renewables sector, efforts to transition displaced workers into clean energy have thus far fallen short. As the state prepares to take large-scale climate action once again, the conversation around a just transition that includes support for these workers has taken center stage.

A transition underway

Illinois – a top energy consumer and producer in the Midwest – is home to the energy-intense urban center of Chicago as well as substantial natural energy resources downstate. The state is ranked second in the nation as a producer of bituminous coal (which is used in steel and electricity production) and fourth in oil refining capacity. But as is the case in states across the country, the shift towards a clean energy economy within the state is already underway despite the fossil fuel capacity. 

The passage of the FEJA in 2016 galvanized numerous renewable energy projects in a state that has traditionally relied so heavily on fossil fuels and nuclear power. Although funding concerns have recently begun to hamper this proliferation of solar, wind, and other renewables projects, sizable progress in expanding these industries in the state has already been made. FEJA is responsible for “more than 2,000 megawatts of solar development, compared with less than 100 [megawatts] in 2018, before the policy took hold,” according to E&E News

The state’s transition away from fossil fuels has been particularly pronounced in the case of coal production. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that “coal’s contribution to in-state generation has declined…to 27% of generation in 2019 as more than a dozen older coal-fired generating plants have shut down.” 

Coal-fired plants within the state have been shuttered in recent years with even more closings planned for the not too distant future. Just last year, Vistra Energy ceased operations in Canton, Havana, Hennepin and Coffeen, Illinois, affecting about 300 employees directly. The Texas-based energy company plans to close its remaining coal plants in the state within the next decade, including one by the end of 2022, two by the end of 2025, and two by the end of 2027.

Policy protecting people

To those who have tracked the policy positions of the Democratic-controlled Illinois General Assembly or the state’s governor, these shifts in the Illinois energy economy likely do not come as a surprise. 

Progress on climate legislation such as the Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA) – a proposed bill even more ambitious than its predecessor, FEJA – and Governor Pritzker’s entrance into the U.S. Climate Alliance both signal a commitment to lowering carbon emissions statewide. At the same time, an increasingly intentional effort has been made to provide for the Illinois workers and families most directly affected by a changing energy economy, like those working in the coal industry.

In signing his 2019 executive order committing the state to fight climate change, Gov. Pritzker also made the case for protecting those whose livelihoods presently depend on jobs in carbon-intensive sectors. 

“We have to address those folks now, many have been displaced. It is a changing economy that requires the application of real effort by leaders in the state to make sure we create jobs,” he said in January of last year. 

The governor’s recently released his “Eight Principles for a Clean & Renewable Illinois Economy,” which devotes a section to discussing a just transition for these communities that are experiencing lost jobs, lost tax revenue, and in many cases a lost sense of identity.

Displaced by the industry

While clean energy in Illinois is on the rise, the size of the state’s fossil fuel workforce remains quite substantial. As of 2019, fossil fuel generation accounted for 7,595 jobs according to the U.S. Energy & Employment Report. Many of these workers view their participation in the industry as a generational pastime, handed down from parents who also worked in similar roles. 

As jobs are eliminated when coal plants shutter, workers see their communities  begin to suffer. Nearby restaurants that once served workers often struggle to find patronage, schools that relied on the plant’s tax revenue can lose funding, and families who’ve lived in a town for generations may be forced to move elsewhere in search of better employment opportunities.

If given proper support and opportunities, however, they can prove to be a valuable asset as other emerging projects search for labor. Energy-related employers facing hiring difficulties have reported the top reasons as a lack of workers with experience or training and difficulty finding industry-specific technical skills or interest. 

Undoubtedly, those whose jobs may have been lost in fossil fuel plant closures would be best positioned to fill these voids. The creation of nearby opportunities for them to bring their experience and interest to these projects, however, remains a key challenge.

Training for the future

Promises of job training programs designed to promote environmental justice were a crucial part of FEJA, and the bill invested millions into these efforts. 

The three key programs created by the legislation were the Solar Training Pipeline Program, the Craft Apprenticeship Program, and the Multicultural Job Training Program. These programs rightly focus on training underserved groups including returning citizens, those with foster care backgrounds, those from economically-disadvantaged communities, and those in racially underrepresented groups. But in spite of their success, there has not been as much overlap as desired between those enrolled in these programs and those directly impacted by power plant closures.

For fossil fuel industry veterans, many of whom have worked in mines or power plants for decades, this has added to already-existing skepticism towards the effectiveness of these programs. Moreover, the logistics of mapping these programs to intended targets can also present some difficulty. Sam Garcia of the NRDC explained in 2019 that “it’s difficult even with mass job creation resulting from a bill like FEJA to have a one-to-one translation, ensuring that former coal employees are getting these jobs.”

Recently, however, new proposals being put forward to promote a clean energy transition in the state have adopted a clearer directive on solving these problems. The Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition, responsible for leading the advocacy charge for the CEJA legislation, devotes a page on its website to discussing the support for fossil fuel workers and communities included in the bill. 

Among them is the creation of a “Displaced Energy Workers Bill of Rights” which outlines the need for provisions like “advanced notice of closure, financial advice, continued health care and retirement packages, and full tuition scholarships at Illinois state and community colleges and trade programs” for those workers displaced. In addition, the bill calls for communities where coal power plant closures take place to be designated as “Clean Energy Empowerment Zones,” which makes them eligible for a five-year tax base replacement and clean energy investment incentives. 

No shift in an economic sector as large as that of Illinois’s energy industry will be without disruption. What these proposed systems demonstrate, however, is that useful policy solutions can be tailored to account for the impact of these shifts on ordinary workers. 

Illinois has positioned itself to lead on climate and provide a model for other states looking to do the same. At the same time, the state also has an opportunity to illustrate what a truly just transition for displaced fossil fuel workers might look like.

Featured Image: Photo by Jaime Dantas via Unsplash