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Obama Needs a Just Transition Taskforce

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[Drafted with Jeremy Brecher]

President Barack Obama recently established a Presidential Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.  He stated at the first meeting, "The biggest challenge we're seeing right now is that unemployment is way too high."  He asked them to come up with "some concrete deliverables" to lower the 9% unemployment rate. Here is a concrete proposal to create jobs protecting America's environment -- and make sure other workers are not hurt in the process.

A recent study released by Ceres and the Political Economy Research Institute of the University of Massachusetts examines the effects that some of new EPA regulations will have on jobs.  The study found that between 2010 and 2015, investment to meet the new regulations will produce the equivalent of 290,000 year-round jobs for the entire five-year period. And these are going to be the good, green jobs we've all been waiting for, ranging from engineers and project managers to electricians and iron workers.

Unfortunately, despite this rare bit of good news in our otherwise gloomy economic times, the corporate right has launched a full frontal attack on the EPA, trying to gut its ability to protect Americans' health and the environment; presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich has even called for shutting it down completely.

The attack on the EPA has exploited America's desperate employment situation by endlessly repeating one dubious claim: The EPA is a "serial jobs killer."  At a recent congressional hearing, members of Congress grilled EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson for two hours, accusing her of "putting the American economy in a straitjacket, costing us millions of jobs."

So far the EPA has responded to the right's attacks by arguing that environmental protection creates, rather than kills, jobs. Jackson recently explained to the attendees at the Good Jobs Green Jobs Conference, "Our research indicates that environmental protection -- in the form of safeguards and standards that protect our health, and that the American people demand -- is responsible for net positive job gains all across the country. In other words, environmental protection creates jobs -- 1.7 million of them as of 2008."

Jackson is right: As the Ceres study shows, efforts to protect the environment will continue to be an engine of jobs creation.

That fits right in with Obama's aim to use investment in infrastructure and innovation to create more jobs.  The Obama administration and its new Council on Jobs and Competitiveness should outspokenly promote EPA regulation as a part of its jobs program and start dispelling the myths propagated by the EPA's opponents.

But there's one hitch.  All industrial modernization -- whether for protecting the environment, increasing productivity, improving the product or any other reason -- threatens to eliminate some jobs in obsolete and less efficient facilities.

So while EPA regulation will create hundreds of thousands of new jobs, it will also eliminate several thousand. The fact that some states and people will get new green jobs provides little solace for the people and communities who have lost theirs through no fault of their own.

And that's the hitch: Right-wing opponents of environmental protection are bound to latch on to whatever examples they find and use them as proof that EPA regulation is the proverbial "serial job killer."  Once EPA regulations begin taking effect these newly unemployed workers could easily become Fox News poster children for the threat posed to workers by other climate protection measures.

But for that very reason the coming job losses provide an opportunity for the Obama Administration, the EPA, and the Jobs and Competitiveness Council, to present themselves as advocates and protectors of coal, utility, railroad and other workers whose jobs and communities are threatened by climate and other environmental protection measures.

A good model here could be the highly successful process that helped local communities adjust to the disruption and job shifting that resulted from the closing of military bases under the Base Realignment and Closing Commission (BRAC). Those communities were provided a wide range of federal assistance, including, planning and economic adjustment assistance, environmental cleanup, Community Development Block Grants and Community Service Grants.

Workers dislocated by base closings also received extensive support. The Department of Defense itself provided advance notification of a reduction in force; pre-separation counseling; a hiring preference system with federal agencies to re-employ qualified displaced DOD employees; financial incentives to encourage early retirement of those eligible. Workers affected by base closings were also eligible for help under National Emergency Grants, "Rapid Response" programs, comprehensive assessments and development of individual employment plans and job training.

Communities and individuals affected by EPA regulations could be similarly targeted for assistance from such existing programs as the Department of Labor's Rapid Response Services and the National Emergency Grants of the DOL's Employment and Training Administration, as well as funding for economic development and industrial efficiency and modernization from the Departments of Energy and Commerce.

Because the needed resources are scattered among many different government agencies, the first step might well be for President Obama to establish an interagency task force composed of U.S. agency officials overseeing issues of employment, energy and the environment. Their first task could be to create a transition package for coal miners, utility workers and other affected workers that would provide robust financial and training support and preferential access to the new jobs created by environmental policies. That could be combined with vigorous support for economic planning and investment in the communities affected by EPA regulation, focusing on the development of new clean energy industries. Think of it as a GI Bill for displaced workers and their communities.

It is a basic principle of fairness that the burden of policies that are necessary for society -- like protecting the environment -- shouldn't be borne by a small minority who happen to be victimized by their side effects. Unless workers and communities are protected against the unintended effects of environmental protection, there is likely to be a backlash that threatens the whole effort to protect the environment -- and to save the planet.  Not only that, the beneficial job creation that comes from appropriate environmental regulation will be lost.

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