The Risk of Fiscal Collapse in Coal-Reliant Communities

Lead PI: Noah Kaufman , Adele Morris, Siddhi Doshi

Unit Affiliation: Center on Global Energy Policy (CGEP)

July 2019 - Ongoing
North America ; United States
Project Type: Research Outreach

DESCRIPTION: If the United States undertakes actions to address the risks of climate change, the use of coal in the power sector will decline rapidly. This presents major risks to the 53,000 US workers employed by the industry and their communities. 26 US counties are classified as “coal-mining dependent,” meaning the coal industry is a major employer. In these areas, the industry is also an important contributor to local government finances through a complex system of property, severance, sales, and income taxes; royalties and lease bonuses for production on state and federal lands; and intergovernmental transfers.

While climate-related risks to corporations have received scrutiny in recent years, local governments—including coal-reliant counties—have yet to grapple with the implications of climate policies for their financial conditions. Importantly, the risks from the financial decline of coal-reliant counties extend beyond their borders, as these counties also have significant outstanding debts to the US municipal bond market that they may struggle to repay.

To be sure, national climate policy in the United States is uncertain. Experts have long recommended strong policy action to reduce emissions, and for years, policy makers have largely ignored their advice. Nevertheless, with growing support by the public and policy makers, meaningful climate policy in the United States may be on the horizon, and those dependent on coal should be looking ahead to manage their risks.

This paper examines the implications of a carbon-constrained future on coal-dependent local governments in the United States. It considers the outlook for US coal production over the next decade under such conditions and explores the risk this will pose for county finances. The paper also considers the responsibilities of jurisdictions to disclose these risks, particularly when they issue bonds, and the actions leaders can take to mitigate the risks.