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Unjust Transition: The Flawed Moral Reasoning of House Bill 1314

Unjust Transition: The Flawed Moral Reasoning of House Bill 1314

By: Tegan Truitt

Last legislative session, the Democrats introduced a series of sweeping environmental bills we are labelling collectively the Colorado Green New Deal (GND). Just like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s infamous proposal, the legislation is haphazard, piecemeal, and riddled with flaws that are as sweeping as its reforms.

The Colorado GND includes plans for a carbon tax on electric utilities, fees levied on commercial vehicles, and myriad subsidies and benefits for those lucky enough to be given a place in this New Green World Order. The legislators have patched over the harm to other Coloradans with legislation for a “just transition.”

Among their plans to mask the downsides of the Colorado GND is a “workforce transition plan.” This “solution” showed up in defeated House Bills 1037 and 1313, before finally being adopted redundantly in both the Turducken Act (Senate Bill 236) and HB 1314. HB 1314 mandates the creation of a Just Transition Office, which will aid the identified “coal-transition communities” and “coal-transition workers” as coal-fired generation plants close prematurely.

Consumer demand, the sponsors of 1314 claim, has shifted Colorado away from baseload coal to intermittent renewables, predominately wind with some solar capacity. They go on to say that Coloradans should subsidize and reeducate former coal workers, as this transition results in their displacement.

Perhaps the Colorado coal industry is in its twilight years (though this is by no means obvious), but to suggest that this is so on account of shifts in consumer demand is farcical and misleading, if not dishonest. One wonders why renewable energy generation needs so many subsidies, and why coal plants and other sources of carbon emissions are taxed so heavily, if consumers really are making this choice.

In fact, despite heavy subsidization and the increasing imposition of carbon taxes, only about 11 percent of energy consumed in the United States last year came from renewable sources. This is only about a 3.5 percent increase over the last decade of state renewable mandates, electric vehicle tax credits, wind farm subsidies (that are so large we’ve seen negative energy prices!) and Obama administration emission fees. Coal energy consumption has hardly been reduced even with all the disincentives it faces. To suggest that consumer demand has been causing or will suddenly cause the coal industry to disappear from Colorado is preposterous.

Our legislators know that it is their policies – the Colorado GND – that will finally put an end to coal. For instance, the legislation adopted last session considers imposing a minimum $46-per-metric-ton carbon tax on power plants. The only reason we need to be concerned about a “just transition” is because our legislature has forced it upon us.

The precise consequences of the proposed transition programs are, at present, not measurable. HB 1314 and SB 236 mandate only the creation of agencies who will be tasked with mitigating the consequences to coal workers and communities. Exactly how these agencies will compensate displaced families remains a mystery.

The legislators suggest providing to displaced workers financial compensation and re-education for future employment in new renewable energy. Of course, financial compensation doesn’t come from their own pockets. It is taken from our tax dollars. Apparently, because our consumer demand will put them out of work, Colorado owes coal communities for everything they’ve done for us. Again – it is not a change in consumer demand, but the Colorado GND that will cause this industry wide devastation. And while I’m thankful to the miners and shippers and power plant operators for keeping my house warm all these years, haven’t I already been paying them? What is my electric bill, if not a thank you to the coal industry?

Coloradans shouldn’t be forced to stop purchasing coal, and they definitely shouldn’t be forced to continue paying coal workers and communities after they’ve stopped providing us a service.

Some reflection will illustrate the magnitude of the financial burden. The Colorado GND will force the early retirement of coal plants, leaving former workers at these sites unemployed. Coal mining and shipping will be affected as well. Mining towns will find themselves in deep economic depression.

For obvious reasons, wind and solar farms can’t be built in these mountain towns, so countless families will bear the not-insignificant costs of moving eastward. Training to operate in renewable energy will not be costless either. Most of the new jobs in renewables will be temporary and part-time, so even if displaced workers can seamlessly adjust to the new energy economy, they will quickly find themselves adjusting again.

Perhaps most troubling is not the cost in dollars and cents, but in liberty. This is our legislators’ philosophy: Coloradans consistently act against their own best interests when deciding what energy sources to use and need help deciding what career is best for them. Hence, we will decide both for them.

A person with a more charitable attitude toward the legislature (or a person who stands to gain from the destruction of coal-sourced energy) might reflect that it is only taxes and tax breaks that are being imposed. It is only incentives and training that will be offered to displaced coal workers. The state is not enslaving us. It will simply do what states have always done: levy financial resources toward more socially acceptable ends.

But this attitude understates the critical importance of economic liberty to liberty simpliciter. In his groundbreaking criticism of socialism, economist F. A. Hayek wrote:

Economic control is not merely control of a sector of human life which can be separated from the rest; it is the control of the means for all our ends. And whoever has sole control of the means must also determine which ends are to be served, which values are to be rated higher and which lower—in short, what men should believe and strive for.

The government of the state of Colorado has, under the pretext of environmental crisis, wrested economic control from the hands of its people. It has used this control to direct our actions. Employment for the coal workers has been separated from their choices. Instead of working at times, places, for wages, and doing jobs freely negotiated, many will now leave the industry entirely or labor at the behest of the state.

Meanwhile, the technocrats applaud themselves on the “justice” of this transition. The irony would be funny if it weren’t so horrible.

Tegan Truitt is an intern with the Energy and Environmental Policy Center. He is a rising junior at Grove City College, double majoring in economics and philosophy and minoring in math. 

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