Communities Dependent on Fossil Fuels Are Vulnerable to Socioeconomic, Environmental Stressors
A new paper and data tool identify US counties that are not only economically vulnerable to the energy transition but are also susceptible to problems like pollution and low education rates —issues that will need to be considered in the shift away from fossil fuels.
Accompanied by an interactive data tool, a new working paper from Resources for the Future (RFF) considers which communities are most economically dependent on fossil fuels and assesses additional socioeconomic and environmental risk factors they may face. The working paper’s author, RFF Fellow Daniel Raimi, builds on his previous work to find that many high-producing counties do not suffer from particularly high levels of socioeconomic stressors, but many battle problems with environmental risk factors such as air and water pollution.
Raimi analyzes data collected by federal and state agencies and private data providers in 2018 and 2019 to create a comprehensive review of fossil fuel–dependent counties and stressors. By pinpointing where economic changes are likely to be concentrated, and which communities may be most vulnerable—and most resilient—to disruptions, Raimi aims to help decisionmakers prioritize communities and identify the types of policy support that may be most needed during an energy transition.
“No two places are alike,” Raimi said. “Some places—like Los Angeles—produce and consume enormous amounts of fossil fuels but will be resilient because they have diverse economies. But drive a couple of hours north to Kern County, which is a major oil producer, more rural, and more economically distressed, and the implications of an energy transition could be much starker if not well-managed. As a result, policies to support fossil fuel workers in Los Angeles will look very different from those that support Kern County.”
Raimi assesses 12 measures of socioeconomic and environmental vulnerability to gauge possible community resilience. The measures, which were chosen because they inform distinct aspects of vulnerability, include economic status, education rates, rurality, air toxic cancer risk, and more.
The paper outlines the following conclusions for the top 25–producing counties for varying fossil fuel sectors:
- Campbell County, Wyoming, is by far the largest coal producer in the United States and, for that reason alone, may be the most vulnerable county to the effects of the energy transition.
- In Appalachia, the rural Southwest, and the rural Intermountain West, many top-producing coal counties face high levels of economic distress. Many of the top coal-producing counties have relatively low education rates and face high levels of ambient ozone and toxic water discharges.
- Hundreds of US counties produce substantial quantities of oil. Although Texas has the largest number of top 25 counties, there are also major oil-producing counties in North Dakota, New Mexico, Colorado, Alaska, and California.
- Although many of these counties have relatively low levels of economic distress, they also tend to have low levels of education, large minority populations, and high levels of ambient ozone —all factors that may exacerbate the economic challenges of shifting away from oil.
- Like oil, natural gas is produced in large quantities in hundreds of US counties. Two Pennsylvania counties top the list, and although their socioeconomic risk factors are relatively low, several top-producing counties in Ohio, West Virginia, Louisiana, and Texas face higher levels of economic distress and are highly rural, which could make it harder to grow new economic sectors.
- Environmental risk factors vary widely but are generally highest for exposure to air toxics, toxic water discharges, and ambient ozone air pollution, factors which are not necessarily related to natural gas production but which do raise concerns about public health.
Coal-Fired Power Plants
- The counties that produce the most coal-fired power show high levels of economic distress, low education rates, and are often rural.
- Many top-producing counties face poor air quality, high levels of toxic water discharges, and proximity to “Superfund” sites—the nation’s most polluted places. Like other counties, this analysis does not seek to estimate the extent to which this pollution is caused by coal-fired power.
Natural Gas–Fired Power Plants
- Many natural gas–fired power plants are found in and around major cities, which tend to be more affluent and are home to a well-educated population. At the same time, inequality and environmental justice issues are often most pressing in cities, which have high shares of minority residents.
- Many counties with natural gas-fired power plants also have very high levels of pollution and carry high environmental risk. The top five–producing counties are often in the top 10 percent of all US counties for air pollution, toxic water discharges, and proximity to Superfund sites. Again, these baseline conditions are not necessarily the result of natural gas-fired power plants, but still may create public health and environmental justice concerns.
- Counties with significant oil refining capacity, many of which are along the Gulf Coast, tend to be located near cities and show moderate levels of economic distress. Four of the top five refining counties have high minority populations, which highlights environmental justice concerns near these industrial facilities.
- Many of the top 25–producing counties have extremely high levels of air toxics, toxic water discharges, proximity to Superfund sites, and air pollution. Some of these counties sit alongside a stretch of the Mississippi River dubbed “Cancer Alley” and have the highest air toxics cancer risk in the nation.
“The ways that counties interact with fossil fuels differ significantly,” Raimi said. “But many are facing problems beyond an economic shakeup. It’s important that policymakers recognize distinct local circumstances so they can tailor their solutions accordingly.”
While the paper does not address the anticipated county-by-county benefits of a transition to clean energy, Raimi also notes that counties will experience different benefits from an energy transition.
“Each community and region will need to capitalize on its strengths and address its weaknesses to succeed in the energy transition. That could mean clean energy in places with the best resources, but it will take different forms in other communities,” Raimi said. “It could be tourism, or healthcare, new manufacturing, or other opportunities. The key issue is to remember that no two places are alike, and local solutions will differ depending on local circumstances.”
In the study, Raimi notes that there are opportunities to further refine this work, perhaps by creating a single vulnerability index. He also notes that socioeconomic and environmental effects could evolve over time in different locations, and that there are numerous other factors at play, such as the potential effects of changing energy costs and the potential benefits of switching to clean energy. More work on this topic will follow in the coming months and years.
For more, read the working paper, “Mapping County-Level Exposure and Vulnerability to the US Energy Transition,” by RFF Fellow Daniel Raimi, or view the data tool.
Resources for the Future (RFF) is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Its mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. RFF is committed to being the most widely trusted source of research insights and policy solutions leading to a healthy environment and a thriving economy.
Unless otherwise stated, the views expressed here are those of the individual authors and may differ from those of other RFF experts, its officers, or its directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals.
Data Tool — Dec 14, 2021
Mapping US Energy Communities
Explore a breakdown of US counties that may be "hotspots" for an energy transition away from fossil fuels.