A conveyor system is used to bring coal to boiler furnaces at the Xcel Energy's Comanche Generating Station in Pueblo on Jan. 19, 2019. Steam created in the boiler drives turbines, which in turn, produce electricity. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Coal mining and coal-powered electricity have supplied Colorado with stable jobs and essential energy resources for generations. As our state’s energy economy transitions to 100% renewables by 2040, policymakers are striving to ensure that coal workers and their communities are given new access to jobs and economic opportunity – a goal that the state has called “Just Transition,” as in, “socially just transitions away from coal.” 

To ensure that Colorado’s transition away from coal is socially just, Colorado needs to address social injustices in its infrastructure, particularly transportation and internet access.

By the end of December, the Just Transition Advisory Committee will submit its final plan of 11 policy options for coal community economic development to the General Assembly and Governor’s Office. Some recommendations propose wage and health benefit differentials for coal workers, and some focus on investment capital for new business development. 

F. Garrett Boudinot

But none of these recommendations will succeed if one is not given priority – investments in infrastructure.

Improving highways and broadband specifically will provide near-term jobs, long-term economic growth, new opportunities for all Coloradans, and the building block on which further economic development programs can thrive.

The short-term state investment in broadband and transportation will provide regional jobs for coal workers that could be gained without excessive training or education – jobs that workers could transition to quickly.

In fact, a recent study on Just Transition policies found that highway construction programs are the most cost-effective short-term job creation programs, in part due to the breadth of skill required for the various roles.

Over the long term, existing industries – like outdoor recreation in northwest Colorado coal communities – will experience higher customer visitations, more efficient transportation of goods, and easier marketing and communications with improved roads and broadband infrastructure. 

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New businesses would also become more viable. Improved transportation and internet communications will make doing business easier, ultimately attracting new business owners and workers.

It’s more clear today than ever that internet access is essential for job security and growth. Better broadband infrastructure will allow workers to take on the growing number of remote work opportunities. 

And faster, cheaper transportation will make commuting to work an easier option for those who find employment outside their immediate community. The goal of Just Transition is to keep folks in their communities, and that would be easier with the option to work remotely, or commute more easily. 

Infrastructure investments in coal communities won’t just help those communities, but will create new opportunities for all Coloradans. As traveling through coal communities becomes more attractive, and internet access in those areas becomes more reliable, all of us can more easily enjoy the recreation, eating, shopping, and cultural opportunities in those areas.

I recently had to cut short a fishing trip near a coal community to make a work call, and with better internet access I could have stayed longer to enjoy the fishing – and local businesses.

The viability of any economic development plan will be limited without proper accessibility. A recent study on rural economic development found that communities closer to cities had more successful economic development than those far from cities – largely because of the need for easy transportation and internet access. 

If coal communities want additional Just Transition assistance, it will be more effective with these resources in place.

For over a century, coal mining communities have supported Colorado’s energy grid and economy.  Now is the time for us to support them. 

Infrastructure programs like highways and broadband are necessary first steps towards social justice for Colorado’s coal communities – and we can take these steps now.

F. Garrett Boudinot is a recent PhD graduate from the University of Colorado Boulder. He studies ecological, cultural, and policy responses to climate change.

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