Community resilience in remote, resource-dependent communities: a case study of the U.S. coal transition

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


The United States is undergoing a significant energy system transition characterized by widespread retirement of coal-fired electricity generation facilities. In the next ten years, nearly 30 percent of the nation's coal power plant fleet will retire. The US West hosts a significant portion of these closures, with twenty-five generating units of coal-fired electricity retiring across six Western states. Retirements pose immediate social, economic, and environmental challenges for the localities and regions that host power plants and associated mines. Affected communities need to both plan for loss of employment and tax revenue and ensure thorough decommissioning and remediation of a major industrial facility. Successfully addressing the social, economic, and environmental legacies at coal facilities presents opportunities for enhancing equity and justice in rural energy communities. However, determining the appropriate policy and planning response to address challenges affecting fossil fuel-dependent communities drives significant debate over the implications of accelerating decarbonization in rural places. Interdependent social, political, economic, historical, and environmental processes influence community experiences of coal decline in the US West. This dissertation explores how such factors enable or constrain the resilience of coal-dependent communities to economic decline, where resilience refers to the capacity of a social system to mobilize its resources and respond to shock. This research is thus informed by and contributes to the multidisciplinary literature on resource geography, community resilience, and energy transitions. It makes the following contributions: (1) it investigates how federal and state policies influence community resilience pathways and decision-making at the local level; (2) it identifies and characterizes processes that constrain resilience or enable rural communities to overcome challenges and foster new trajectories; and (3) it identifies specific policies and strategies to support communities navigating energy transition and socioeconomic uncertainty. To make these contributions, this dissertation engages a mixed-methods approach, combining policy analysis and qualitative data collection to examine the coal transition in the US West at the regional and local scale.




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