2023 was marked by historic wins for workers. NPR called 2023 the Year of the Union. The New York Times called it Labor’s Very Good Year. Workers across industries battled for stronger protections—especially ones that considered climate change and a shifting energy market. The United Auto Workers (UAW) fought tirelessly to secure a contract with better wages and benefits, while also assuring that auto workers will not be left behind in the electric vehicle (EV) transition. Workers at Amazon, UPS and the United Farmworkers organized for stronger protections from extreme heat. These wins further solidified the link between labor and environmental movements—a link that can no longer be ignored. In 2023, calls for ‘just transition’ became an anthem across industries.
Additionally, for the first time ever, a ministerial roundtable was held at COP28 to discuss how to mitigate the negative impacts of new climate policies on workers. In a historic win for the climate movement, COP 28’s delegation also committed to “transition away from fossil fuels”. Although it falls short of a wholesale phaseout, this commitment highlights the need for rapid investments in clean energy. It signifies what leaders are calling “the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era”.
It is clear that the low carbon future we yearn for will only be achieved if we protect workers, help communities diversify their economies and bring justice to those who are disproportionately impacted by fossil fuels. Colorado is often hailed as a leader in climate action—but is it possible that, in these areas, the state falls notably short?
Colorado’s Plan for a Just Energy Transition
The Office of Just Transition
Colorado created the first Office of Just Transition (OJT) in the country. Aimed at helping workers and communities as we shut down our remaining coal-fired power plants, the Office has set forth a tiered action plan to help workers find new jobs and to assist local communities in building economies for the future. These efforts are incredibly important—historically, the U.S. has done a poor job at preparing workers and communities when an industry collapses (see the closures of the steel mill in Youngstown, Ohio or the General Motors plant in Michigan).
While the OJT has set a strong precedent, Colorado is now falling behind other states, like Michigan and California, which have programs to support all fossil fuel workers and to promise high-paying jobs in the clean energy economy. Successful economic transitions take incredible amounts of effort and resources, so laying the groundwork should be a critical near-term priority. But Colorado currently has no plans to support the biggest portion of its fossil fuel economy—its oil and gas workers and communities.
In 2023, The Coalition for a Regenerative Future worked to pass House Bill 23-1074, a study bill that directs the Office of Future of Work to analyze skill transferability, training availability and transition strategies for oil and gas workers. Not every worker will face the same struggles in a future without fossil fuels. The oil and gas sector alone conceals dozens of different types of jobs, from engineers to truck drivers to lawyers. A low-carbon future will also indirectly impact roles such as steelworkers, car mechanics and electricians. Additionally, other industries may not accept the specific licenses and skill certifications of these workers.
The HB23-1074 study will aim to identify which workers need the most support in the energy transition. It will connect the dots to opportunities in sectors like clean energy and environmental remediation. It will pay special attention to wages, benefits and locations of these jobs. Based on the findings, the Office will make recommendations for policies and incentive programs that will help workers adapt. This is an important starting point—though it relies on continued investment in these communities after the study concludes.
Oil and Gas Tax Revenue
Another question remains to be addressed. How will Colorado communities make up the tax revenue lost from oil and gas operations? A recent report from the Colorado Fiscal Institute found that 36 of Colorado’s 64 counties had oil and gas assessed property value in 2021. Several counties receive more than 40% of their property taxes from the oil and gas industry. This money supports local budgets, school districts and other special districts. While the Inflation Reduction Act incentivizes placing new clean energy projects in fossil fuel communities, there is no official mandate to make this happen. Colorado must create robust programs to ensure the resiliency of communities as we face a warming climate and greening economy.
How The Coalition is Responding to the Challenges of a Just Energy Transition
The lack of just transition planning for oil and gas communities represents a major policy gap in Colorado’s plan to curb emissions. The Coalition has responded by convening stakeholders to discuss statewide and place-based solutions. The Just Transition Roundtable, for example, brought together labor representatives, community leaders, economists, environmental justice and faith groups to collaborate on a suite of recommendations. These recommendations informed HB 23-1074, which was supported by both environmental justice and labor groups alike. (For more information about the Just Transition Roundtable and its outcomes, read Elevating Voices to Ensure a Just Transition).
Since the roundtable, we have been working with the Colorado Fiscal Institute on a statewide survey and community listening tour. The survey will identify worker’s priorities for new work, the training opportunities that interest them and how their local governments and unions can support them. The survey also asks residents of oil- and gas-dependent communities about their community’s priorities for federal funding. It will explore how they want to be engaged by officials on the energy transition. And it will survey the accessibility of current programs aimed at increasing adoption of clean energy (like helping individuals purchase an electric vehicle or install solar panels on their home).
Collaborating on Policy
We hope this research will move the needle forward on more expansive just transition policy. These discussions also informed our 2024 Policy Platform. The platform includes ideas for increasing economic resilience in communities, funding workforce development programs, holding oil and gas companies accountable and more. You can view our 2024 Policy Platform here.
We have also been actively participating in the Greenhouse Gas Roadmap 2.0 stakeholder process. The State is working on an updated plan for how Colorado will cut its carbon emissions for the next decade. We are urging state leaders and the Colorado Energy Office to include just transition strategies as a primary goal.
Last year’s wins—for workers and for the climate—are essential steps toward a regenerative future. But they are also just the tip of the (rapidly melting) iceberg. Colorado must do more to decarbonize and to protect workers and communities in the process. We are honored to be a driving force behind this work and invite you to join us! Learn more about The Coalition for a Regenerative Future and its Just Transition group or join today to participate in Colorado’s clean energy journey.
A Thank You to Our Sponsors
An enormous thank you to our funders—Premier Member Credit Union and the Wells Fargo Foundation! We appreciate your continued support and your commitment to a just energy transition.
This blog was co-written by Jane Allen, The Coalition’s Assistant Director in Climate and Energy Resilience. You can reach Jane directly at email@example.com.