Can Bloomberg, Coal’s Billionaire Foe, Help Communities Hurt by its Decline?

Mike Bloomberg, one of philanthropy’s biggest crusaders against coal, is now funding efforts to rebuild local economies that have suffered as the industry has collapsed. 

Bloomberg Philanthropies is giving $3 million to three entities backing economic development in communities that are historically dependent on the coal industry, and have suffered as plants have closed. The foundation is also kicking off a fundraising campaign to support these same groups. While the funder doesn’t specify that it’s using this framework, the program makes Bloomberg the latest to fund what’s often called just transition work, which aims to empower communities to build sustainable and equitable economies as we move away from fossil fuels.

It’s nowhere near the $80 million Bloomberg has given to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, but it does mark something of a change in terms of how his philanthropy approaches the national shift to clean energy. 

Related: Bloomberg, the Spock of Philanthropy, Doubles Down Against Coal

The grant announcement points out that the foundation came across groups working to aid former coal miners while it co-produced From the Ashes, a documentary on the coal industry in America. The film features one of the three new grantees, West Virginia nonprofit Coalfield Development Corporation, which supports businesses and trains workers in new fields like solar power and sustainable agriculture.

Another grantee is the Just Transition Fund, a product of other philanthropies like the Rockefeller Family Foundation and the Appalachia Funders Network, which channels funds toward local efforts to diversify and strengthen economies. The third grantee, the Western Organization of Resource Councils, is a network of groups in Western states that back similar grassroots work. 

The coal industry has become a wedge in the U.S. economic debate, more so than usual, with President Trump making highly improbable promises about the return of the mining workforce as part of his jobs agenda. But coal power is inevitably waning, for very good reasons related to public health and climate change, but also money. Coal is simply not competitive or in high enough demand anymore, with a big part of the equation being the rise of natural gas. More on that later. 

For some perspective on just how marginal coal has become, in 2016, the industry employed fewer than half of the workers employed by the solar power industry, and more like a third of solar and wind jobs combined. 

In other words, this shift away from coal is very good for the country overall, and happening no matter what, even if a lot of the political debate is about whether it should. Generally speaking, those on the right are clinging to coal’s evaporating relevance, while environmentalists want to accelerate its decline. But there’s less attention paid to rebuilding and empowering the suffering communities in the crossfire, including from environmentalists.

Even Bloomberg, in a recent interview with NPR, concedes that he’s placed a higher priority on shutting coal down: “…I can save one life or I can save one job. I know how to answer that, and I think most people would say we've got to find a ways to give those people jobs later on. But the first decision is save lives.”

A common critique of environmental heavyweights is that they focus on big-picture environmental concepts, while not paying enough attention to how that plays out in communities and people’s lives. That’s especially the case when it comes to issues of equity and justice. Maybe they’re big on pushing efficiency, solar power or green spaces, but not so great when it comes to how that plays out for underserved neighborhoods, or letting them lead the way in getting there.

Nathan Cummings Foundation, since the appointment of President Sharon Alpert, is one prominent green funder that’s working to adopt a community focus in the latest iteration of its environment program. 

Related: In the Climate Change Fight, a Foundation Puts a New Focus on the Role of Communities

But the reigning champ when it comes to just transition funding (in our book at least) is the Chorus Foundation. This small funder kicked off an all-general support, long-term funding initiative that backs sustainable and equitable economic development in three locations. 

Chorus emphasizes that effective just transition work has some key characteristics: It’s social movement-based, it works for long-term systemic change, and it’s grounded in local, place-based leadership.

That can be a tall order for philanthropy, which is part of the reason this program presents something of a twist. Bloomberg’s giving is full of surprises, and these are great organizations, but the former New York mayor is one of the most results- and data-fixated donors around. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I wonder if this funder is up for backing the long and messy work of shifting power in a local economy.

Of course, the elephant in the room, here, is that Mike Bloomberg is also an outspoken proponent of natural gas fracking as a way to transition from coal, diverging from his environmentalist allies. 

This is a troubling stance for the head of an energy and health funder that’s seeking to help vulnerable communities. The oil and gas industry is disproportionately fracking in poor, rural communities, and endangering residents’ public health in ways similar to the coal industry's. Making poor, rural towns economically dependent on yet another polluting fossil fuel industry is a transition that’s anything but just. 

Related: The Chorus Foundation Looks to Communities to Take the Lead on Climate