Thousands of neighborhoods in the U.S. — comprising 64 million people — have historically relied on the oil, gas and coal industries for revenue and jobs. While America’s shift to clean energy is often cited as a growing threat to these "energy communities," new WRI analysis shows it’s just one of many burdens they face.

We found that 45% of the population (or 28.5 million people) living in energy communities are also living in communities identified by the U.S. government as "disadvantaged" — whether because of excessive air pollution, high unemployment and poverty rates, inaccessible transportation, health problems or a combination of factors. Sometimes these burdens are caused directly by a community’s proximity to fossil fuel facilities, such as high rates of heart disease and asthma, or exposure to PM2.5 pollution. Other times they simply add to a community’s "cumulative burden" of suffering multiple socioeconomic and environmental disadvantages while also facing imminent loss of livelihoods.

Community Definitions

What’s an Energy Community?

The Inflation Reduction Act defines “energy community,” as a location that falls into one of three categories: coal closure (where coal facilities have been closed or retired), fossil fuel (where employment and tax revenues rely on coal, oil and natural gas industries) and brownfields (where hazardous materials, contaminants and pollutants are present).  Almost one-fifth of Americans, or 64 million people, reside in coal closure and fossil fuel energy communities as defined by the Inflation Reduction Act. All states except for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Idaho are home to these energy communities. 

Read WRI's full analysis of energy communities.

What’s a Disadvantaged Community?

The Biden Administration created the Justice40 Initiative to deliver at least 40% of the benefits of federal climate and clean energy investments to “disadvantaged communities” that are “marginalized, underserved and overburdened by pollution.” To prioritize funding, the White House created a tool which identifies disadvantaged communities through eight categories including climate change, energy, health, housing, legacy pollution, transportation, water and wastewater, and workforce development. Thirty-three percent of the U.S. population (109.1 million people) live in these communities. Persons of color and Indigenous populations are more likely to reside in disadvantaged communities.

Read WRI's full analysis of disadvantaged communities.

WRI and Rocky Mountain Institute have also developed a mapping tool to visualize areas that are eligible for Inflation Reduction Act incentives.

In either case, the disproportionate burdens faced by energy communities speak to a history of injustices — ones that policymakers must grapple with to make America’s clean energy transition fair and just.

With this in mind, we examined two types of energy communities — those impacted by coal mine closures and those with economies that rely heavily on the fossil fuel industry — through the lens of the White House’s Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (CEJST). Our findings can help policymakers direct clean energy investments from the Inflation Reduction Act and other sources toward the communities that need them the most.

Overlap Between Energy Communities and Disadvantaged Communities

Fossil fuels are at the heart of interconnected crises — climate change, economic dislocation, environmental injustice and public health — facing national and local communities.

The transition away from fossil fuels unsurprisingly has generated significant concerns about the future and wellbeing of those workers and local communities. Absent policies to soften the economic blow and manage the transition, fossil fuel workers and communities can face economic hardships. For example, more than a year after the shutdown of the Marathon oil refinery in California, one in five of the refinery’s workers was unemployed and those who found a new job earned significantly less than prior to their layoff.

The analysis of communities that meet the definitions of both disadvantaged communities and energy communities, which we refer to as "disadvantaged energy communities," makes it clear that a large number of workers and communities who are impacted by the energy transition also experience a disproportionate amount of pollution, health impacts and other socioeconomic burdens.

Nearly half (45%) of the population in energy communities, or 28.5 million people, are also living in disadvantaged communities. 

Among the two types of energy communities, 40% of people living in coal closure energy communities, and 46% of people living in fossil fuel energy communities, live in areas that are also designated as disadvantaged communities. With this significant overlap between energy and disadvantaged communities, calls for a just transition should not only include solutions to address the needs of workers and communities, but also strategies to rectify the adverse health effects and harmful environmental impacts imposed on those communities. Cleanup procedures of closed fossil fuel sites are also needed so these sites don’t continue to interfere with the health and environment of people living in surrounding areas.

In particular, environmental remediation of abandoned fossil fuel sites can address advancing a just transition and environmental justice concerns at the same time by creating jobs, cleaning up local sources of pollution, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and potentially making communities more receptive to transitioning away from fossil fuels.

The overlap between energy communities and disadvantaged communities varies widely across different states. For instance, in states like Arkansas, Oklahoma and Oregon, 80% or more of the state’s energy community population are also in disadvantaged communities. Alabama, Arizona, Hawaii, Kentucky, Mississippi and West Virginia are some other examples of states where half or more of the population in energy communities are also in disadvantaged communities.

Several overlapping energy and disadvantaged communities are even more vulnerable because they experience multiple environmental, socioeconomic and health-related burdens.

While the White House’s tool to identify disadvantaged communities does not measure the cumulative burden of disadvantaged communities, we looked at the distribution of the number of CEJST indicators different overlapping disadvantaged energy communities meet. Our analysis found that 20% of the population in disadvantaged energy communities (5.6 million individuals) qualify as disadvantaged by meeting just one of 18 CEJST indicator thresholds. However, the remaining population in disadvantaged energy communities (22.5 million individuals) are exposed to multiple burdens, like linguistic isolation, heart disease, and transportation barriers among others.

For instance, 14.3 million individuals (or half of the population in disadvantaged energy communities) meet four or more CEJST indicator thresholds. This highlights that several energy communities experience many sources of disadvantage and vulnerabilities, which depending on the types of burdens faced can further complicate efforts to transition them away from fossil fuel-based economies.

To understand how many people living in energy communities are also impacted by multiple health, environment or socioeconomic burdens, we mapped out West Virginia and Texas, two states which will be heavily impacted by the transition away from coal and fossil fuels. West Virginia is home to the highest share of people living in energy communities — more than 1.6 million individuals or 89% of the population. This is not surprising since the state has been a major contributor to U.S. coal production, consistently making up more than 10% of U.S. coal supply since 2001. Coal production in the state however, declined by 38% in 2022, compared to production levels in 2010.

Fifty-four percent of the state’s population — or 984,000 people — live in disadvantaged energy communities. More than 878,000 of those individuals are in disadvantaged energy communities that meet two or more indicator thresholds. Health-related burdens such as low-life expectancy and heart disease make up the majority of the burdens experienced in West Virginia.

Areas facing a higher number of burdens are clustered in Boone, Wayne, Mingo, Logan and McDowell counties in the southwest.

In 2022, Texas accounted for 42 percent of the country’s crude oil and 27 percent of natural gas production, the highest share across all oil and gas producing states. Almost half of the state’s population — 13.8 million people — reside in energy communities, with a vast majority (13.7 million people) in fossil fuel energy communities.

Forty-nine percent of the state’s population in energy communities (6.8 million people) live in disadvantaged energy communities. And 81% of the 6.8 million individuals live in communities that meet two or more indicators (5.6 million people). Areas facing a higher number of burdens are concentrated in multiple counties in the southern and western parts of the state. Health-related burdens are also prominent in Texas but the population in disadvantaged energy communities here are most exposed to workforce development-related indicators, such as linguistic isolation, poverty, and unemployment.

As federal and even local policymakers target resources and investments to energy communities, they may want to prioritize those energy communities which are experiencing a higher cumulative burden. The Inflation Reduction Act provides an Energy Community Tax Credit Bonus, which offers clean energy projects sited in energy communities a 10% bonus credit on top of the base Production and Investment Tax Credits. While the legislative text of this bill is unlikely to change, policy tools such as the bonus tax credit can be designed in such a way that the size of the tax credit increases for disadvantaged energy communities that experience more burdens. For instance, going from 5% for energy communities with a low cumulative burden to 10% for those with a high cumulative burden. Energy communities facing a high cumulative burden can also be targeted with additional support and investment beyond the 10% bonus credit for which they are already eligible.

Overall, disadvantaged energy communities are highly vulnerable to health and workforce development-related indicators.

Linguistic isolation, which measures the share of households where no one over age 14 speaks proficient English, is the most common CEJST indicator that qualifies energy communities as disadvantaged, with 9.3 million people living in energy communities that meet this threshold. Ninety-seven percent of these individuals reside in fossil fuel energy communities. A vast majority of the population in fossil fuel energy communities (53%) are in states like California and Texas, where English is not the primary language for a substantial share of the population. In California for instance, 40% of the state’s population speaks a language other than English at home.

These burdens can present significant challenges to connecting disadvantaged energy communities to workforce opportunities. Workforce and training programs will need to be designed in such a way that they are easily accessible, including ensuring that programs are tailored and available to speakers of different languages in their specific communities. Residents in these types of disadvantaged energy communities are also likely to be poor and face transportation barriers (i.e., high cost and time spent on transportation), which will require targeted support. This could take the form of providing gas cards or reimbursements in areas that lack public transportation and stipend and childcare for time spent in training.

Energy communities are also heavily exposed to CEJST’s health-related indicators. A total of 6.9 million people live in disadvantaged energy communities where the risk of heart disease is significantly higher than average. This is not surprising since continuous exposure to emissions from coal-fired power plants is significantly more harmful to heart health than other forms of carbon pollution. Heart disease mortality risk from coal combustion is 5 times higher compared to other forms of air pollution in the U.S. Heart disease is known to be the leading cause of death in coal-mining communities in the Appalachian region.

For an Equitable Energy Transition, Prioritize Vulnerable Communities

The Inflation Reduction Act recognizes the need to provide additional financial incentives to energy communities to enable them to move away from polluting industries towards a clean energy future. Our analysis provides one method to prioritize energy communities for policy support and investment, by examining the overlap between energy communities and disadvantaged communities. Policymakers can adapt this approach to not only target resources to at risk or highly vulnerable energy communities but can also develop policy priorities in a manner that addresses the specific type of disadvantaged status prevalent in energy communities.

There can be other ways to identify at-risk energy communities, including extent of fossil fuel employment and/or revenue dependence and timeline of fossil fuel facility closure (for instance, nearly a quarter of the operating coal-fired fleet is scheduled to retire by 2029).    

But regardless of the approach, one thing is clear: Energy communities have been historically dependent on fossil fuels and disproportionately burdened by a legacy of environmental, health and socio-economic burdens. A just and equitable energy transition demands that these communities, that have borne the brunt of decades of resource extraction and will face further economic hardships associated with the reduction or elimination of fossil fuel activities, should be at the forefront of obtaining benefits from investments in the clean energy economy.