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Local policymakers’ hopes and concerns about the transition to clean energy

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

Severe weather events and fluctuating gas prices have increased political support for reducing fossil fuel dependence in the United States. Nationally, there is widespread support for the federal government to accelerate the clean energy transition. The Biden Administration has taken advantage of this political will to act, with major legislation like the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) which will usher in major investments in clean energy development.

However, major transitions like this one—even ones that create benefits nationally—also have uneven effects across the country. In this case, local communities that currently depend on the fossil fuel industry for local job opportunities face significant risks. Whether this transition will be successful will depend on ensuring these local communities believe they will share in its benefits.

The Biden Administration has sought to address this concern. For example, the IRA promises increased incentives for clean energy development in communities that have historically had dependence on fossil fuels. However, residents and local officials in these areas may not trust these promises made by the Federal Government. In particular, they might doubt whether investments will be sustained into the future, when economic or political conditions change.

To better understand how leaders on the frontlines of the clean energy transition view the situation, Alexander Gazmararian at Princeton University and Dustin Tingley at Harvard University conducted a national survey of local elected leaders in collaboration with CivicPulse. The survey gauged local leaders’ beliefs about the impact of this transition on their communities, as well as their trust in the promises made by the Federal Government to mitigate any economic losses.

Impact on local communities

Many experts have argued that the transition to clean energy will result in greater employment opportunities across the country. As reported by the Brookings Institution, clean energy jobs may be abundant enough to replace all of the jobs lost in the fossil fuel industry. Despite these claims, many remain skeptical. Some worry that the new clean energy jobs will be only temporary, lower paying, or go to different workers than those displaced from their fossil fuel-dependent jobs.

We asked local policymakers how they think clean energy policies would affect jobs and economic activity in their area. Not surprisingly, the party affiliation of local elected officials was an important predictor of their perception of whether the clean energy transition would help or hurt their community. Republican officials were much more likely to expect green energy policies to decrease economic activity in their communities than Democratic officials. Specifically, 73% of Republicans expected a decrease, versus only 22% of Democratic respondents.

The degree of fossil fuel dependence was also an important predictor of beliefs. Leaders who serve in non-metro counties located in states with more dependence on fossil fuels—the criterion we used for identifying higher fossil fuel dependence—were more likely to be pessimistic about the economic effects of the transition than leaders in other counties. Of the leaders in more fossil fuel-dependent counties, 60% said economic activity would decrease as a result of the clean energy transition, compared to 45% in less dependent counties. This difference holds even after controlling for party affiliation of the respondent.

Longevity of federal investments

Local government leaders are also skeptical of the credibility of any potential federal investments for economic development in local communities. One reason for this skepticism may be the lack of full bipartisan support among elected officials for these investments, which increases the possibility that funds could disappear when the political tide turns.

To gauge this concern, we asked local officials whether, in a scenario where the Federal Government promised a 10-year investment in local economic development, this investment would be maintained, reduced, or expanded during the promised duration. More than half of the respondents (53%) expected such a federal investment would be reduced, while only 17% believe the investment would be expanded. The expectation that such an investment would be reduced over time was the most common answer among both Republican and Democratic officials.

When asked how uncertainty over the future of federal investments might affect economic development in their community, respondents overwhelmingly answered that such uncertainty would hinder their ability to make plans. As one local official in a non-metro county in a fossil fuel state expressed, “Planning activities would be unsure and unreliable. As city leaders we need assurances that funding mechanisms are reliable for future development.”

Several leaders explained that if federal funding disappears, local taxpayers might have to pick up the slack and community programs would get eliminated as a result. Some survey respondents gave examples of past federal investments that businesses in their community had taken advantage of, which were later removed leaving those local businesses holding the bag. The potential consequences of the uncertainty of federal funding might make local policymakers reluctant to support clean energy projects in their area if the projects rely on federal investments.

Ensuring a smooth transition

Local government policymakers are understandably concerned about the economic realities their communities will face in transitioning to clean energy sources. What could be done to mitigate their fears?

Our survey respondents had some ideas for making sure the clean energy transition provides better opportunities for their communities. For example, one policymaker from a municipality in Washington State explained, “Locally we have some large renewable energy projects, both solar and wind. There are very few permanent jobs that come along with them. Requiring use of local workers and staff for the temporary jobs (Construction) would be appropriate.” Another official from a California municipality called for “accountability, transparency and fiscal responsibility and firm commitments by the federal government to the local township residents.”

Our collaborators have some ideas as well! In their new book, Uncertain Futures: How to Unlock the Climate Impasse, Alexander Gazmararian and Dustin Tingley offer insights into solutions for a just and durable energy transition. The authors spent years discussing these issues with community members and local leaders in fossil fuel-dependent areas. Uncertain Futures proposes solutions to make more credible promises that build support for the energy transition. It examines the perspectives of workers, communities, and companies, arguing that the climate impasse is best understood by viewing the problem from the ground up.

Featuring voices on the front lines such as a commissioner in Carbon County deciding whether to welcome wind, executives at energy companies searching for solutions, mayors and unions in Minnesota battling for local jobs, and fairgoers in coal country navigating their uncertain future, this book contends that making economic transitions work means making promises credible. Their proposed solutions are ones that governments, businesses, and non-profits can implement to reduce the uncertainty of investments, which will in turn help local policymakers plan for economic changes in their communities.

Click on this link to learn more about the book:

Survey Background

The research underlying this brief was built on data from a national random-sample survey of 610 local policymakers, fielded from June to October 2022. The sample frame draws on Power Almanac’s continuously updated contact list of government officials from counties, municipalities, and townships with populations of 1,000 or more. The survey was developed in collaboration with Alexander Gazmararian at Princeton University and Dr. Dustin Tingley, Professor of Government at Harvard University, and implemented by the CivicPulse Team.

Below are the key survey items used to generate this brief:

Consider a promise by the federal government to make a 10-year investment for economic development in your area. Over the next 10 years, do you think the government would be likely to:

  • Reduce the investment

  • Keep the investment at the same level

  • Expand the investment

What effect would uncertainty over possible reductions or changes to federal government investment programs have on economic development in your area? Feel free to answer with short bullet points.

What suggestions would you have for the federal government about how to make sure that investments in your area for renewable energy jobs provide local benefits? Feel free to answer using short bullet points.

Federal lawmakers are considering a climate policy that would transition the country away from coal, oil and gas and toward renewable energy sources. What effect do you think a climate policy would have on employment and business activity in your area?

  • Substantial decrease

  • Moderate decrease

  • No change

  • Moderate increase

  • Substantial increase

What concerns would you have about whether investments to support communities impacted by a climate policy would provide long-term economic growth? Please answer using short bullet points.

Media Contacts

Nathan Lee, PhD

Managing Director of CivicPulse

(618) 319-3404

Dustin Tingley, PhD

Professor of Government

Harvard University


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