Add Your Voice for a Just Transition to a Green Energy Economy

Jacob Swenson-Lengyel

The Green Energy Revolution is coming. The only question is: what kind of revolution it will be? As our economy transitions away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources like wind and solar we have a choice to make. Either we let market forces drive the transition to clean power, replacing a handful of wealthy coal and oil barons with a new set of wind and solar titans, or we push for a “just transition” and attempt to create something altogether new and different — an energy system that works for everyday people, especially those most impacted by fossil fuel pollution and the climate crisis.

Yesterday, hundreds of people from People’s Action, Climate Justice Alliance, Sierra Club, National Nurses United, and other community groups flocked to Chicago to participate in an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hearing on the Clean Energy Incentive Program (CEIP). The hearing was held a year to the day after President Obama and EPA announced the Clean Power Plan (CPP), which imposes the first federal regulations on carbon emissions. It was the latest of many fronts in the struggle for a just transition to clean and democratically-controlled energy.

While it’s easy to get lost in the acronyms, CEIP is an extremely important provision in the Clean Power Plan. The purpose of the program is to jump start clean energy projects broadly defined, including investments in both renewable energy and energy efficiency, specifically in low-income communities. Indeed, it’s the only program within the plan that designed to incentivize investments in such communities.

Of course, the program is not without it’s shortcomings, which is one of the reasons community activists showed up in force to testify before EPA. As Jessica Juarez Scruggs, Deputy Policy Director for People’s Action told me, the program is a start, but does too little to protect impacted communities. Not only is the program optional for states creating plans to meet the EPA’s new standards, it also essentially hinges on carbon trading — allowing clean energy project managers to accumulate credits which they can then sell back to big polluters and utility companies — something the environmental justice movement has been against since day one.

Just as importantly, Juarez Scruggs puts it, “The depth of the need contrasts with the narrowness of the program.” In testimony after testimony, people from communities on the frontline of fossil fuel pollution and the climate crisis told the EPA how they were being impacted and why the CEIP — and programs like it — are so important to them.

Deborah Sims, a leader with Communities United for Action (CUFA) traveled to the hearing from Cincinnati, Ohio. As I pulled her aside after her testimony, she pulled out an inhaler and needed a minute to catch her breath. Sims, who lives just four miles away from a Procter & Gamble coal-fired power plant, suffers from asthma.

Sims has been active on issues including water bills, childhood poverty, vacant housing and joblessness. She came from Cincinnati not just to testify about herself, but to talk about her 11 year old great niece, Brooklyn, who also suffers from acute asthma.

While most kids relish summertime as a season filled with opportunities to get outside, go to the park, and run through the sprinklers, the hot weather and high pollution keep Brooklyn trapped inside. “She loves to swim and she can’t go outside,” says Sims. “It’s hard. She comes over to my house and likes to play jump rope, but she can’t do it right now.”

As Sims put it, she came to tell the EPA that “we need clean air and we need clean water. We’ve got to have those two things. We’ve got to do better.” She also added that she’s optimistic that CEIP could create good-paying jobs that are desperately needed in Hamilton County.

Gary Zuckett, executive director of West Virginia Citizen Action Group, told me about what it’s like to live in a state that’s “ground zero” when it comes to fossil fuel extraction.

“In the southern part of the state, they’re blowing the tops off our mountains to extract coal, in the northern part of the state, they’re fracking the marcellus shale to get to the oil and gas,” he said. “We’ve been an energy exporting colony since before the state was formed.”

Zuckett came to the EPA hearing to speak for a just transition, especially for coal miners and oil and gas workers who will get laid off when the fossil fuel boom is over. While West Virginia’s Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has been a vocal opponent of the Clean Power Plan, Zuckett said that the state needs to implement the plan and look toward transitioning “away from carbon based fuel sources and towards 21st century renewable energy.”

“The Clean Power Plan and the Clean Energy Incentive Program have the types of incentives for this transition,” he added. “We could be a manufacturer of solar panels in West Virginia. We have the resources needed to do that and the skilled workers. And right now we have a lot of land sitting idle that was formerly used for mountaintop removal and coal mining that would be perfect sites for large scale solar farms.”

The biggest thing he is taking back home is that it’s not just West Virginia that’s hurting. Hearing about chronic illnesses in Chicago, Detroit, and Buffalo, and connecting the related injustices urban communities of color face with those faced by mostly white rural communities in West Virginia, Zuckett said he’s energized to continue building a national movement for a just transition to clean energy.

While much of our energy policy hangs on the next administration — led either by a man who has called climate change a hoax or a woman who, while far from a climate advocate’s dream candidate, has released a detailed plan for climate justice — activists are also looking to the state’s as a key field of struggle in the fight for a just transition.

“While the EPA should do more to improve CEIP, the fight around the Clean Power Plan is moving to states now,” Juarez Scruggs told me. “We’re fighting to make sure state implementation plans include investment and jobs in low-income communities and communities of color.”

If you want to add your voice to the movement for a just transition, take a minute to send the EPA a comment now calling on the agency to expand the CEIP and make it mandatory.

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