The University of New Mexico’s Just Transition to Green Energy Grand Challenge team hosted Wade Buchanan, director of Colorado’s Office of Just Transition, for a public presentation at UNM and a dinner with representatives from several New Mexico state agencies recently.

Colorado created the Office of Just Transition in 2019 to assist workers and communities that will be negatively impacted by the closure of coal mines and coal-fired power plants in the state. The office aims to help impacted workers transition to new, high-quality jobs. It also aims to help communities continue to thrive by expanding and attracting diverse businesses.

UNM’s Just Transition Grand Challenge team seeks to identify and evaluate the opportunities, challenges, and policy options for achieving an inclusive and equitable transition from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources. The team is particularly focused on creating economic opportunities for members of disadvantaged communities—particularly Hispanic, Native, and Black communities and fossil fuel worker communities.

Buchanan presented on the charge and work of the Colorado Office of Just Transition at the UNM Student Union Building. The office was created by the Colorado State Legislature as part of Colorado’s commitment to have a 100 percent renewable energy electricity grid by 2040. This commitment will require the closure of over a dozen coal mines and coal-fired power plants across the state in the next decade. These closures are expected to create roughly 3,000 direct job losses, with additional impacts to surrounding communities. One major impact to those communities is the loss of property taxes, which pay for things like school districts, libraries, fire departments, municipal infrastructure, and more. Small, isolated rural communities will be particularly negatively impacted by job and property tax losses.

Wade Buchanan JT April 2024 crop
Tracy Wenzl
Wade Buchanan, Director of the Colorado Office of Just Transition, presents on his office’s charge and progress at the University of New Mexico Student Union Building on April 11, 2024.

The Colorado Office of Just Transition aims to assist communities in replacing property taxes and increasing economic diversity, as well as to assist workers in transitioning to other equivalent-paying jobs or attaining secure retirements. They’ve dedicated a significant amount of their overall budget to community assistance grants aimed at building capacity and creating employment opportunities in impacted communities.

“We’re not trying to replace megawatts with megawatts,” said Buchanan. “We are trying to replace property taxes with property taxes and jobs with jobs. A just transition is about business development, economic diversification, and job creation – not energy.”

Another approach the office is taking is to hire and place transition navigators in impacted communities. These navigators will help coal workers and their families plan for the future and can link them to existing resources in their communities. Other planned supports include tuition, education, and training assistance and helping small businesses get started.

Buchanan highlighted the importance of involving impacted communities in deciding how to prepare for upcoming closures. “Helping communities have their own voices in matters related to their own futures, rather than having those futures decided for them, is the best thing we have done so far,” says Buchanan.

Buchanan’s presentation was attended by a mix of UNM faculty, staff, and students, as well as representatives from various New Mexico state agencies and community organizations interested in just transition work. Colorado’s just transition work is particularly relevant to New Mexico due to both the 2022 closure of the coal-fired San Juan Generation Station in northwest New Mexico and the uncertain future of the oil and gas industry in the Permian Basin in the southeast corner of the state given changing demand and climate change concerns.

“Colorado has been a leader in taking concrete steps to help fossil-fuel economies address the shift away from coal,” said Gabe Pacyniak, UNM Law Professor and co-convenor of the Grand Challenge team. “We are grateful to UNM’s Grand Challenge program for providing us with resources so that we can bring Wade [Buchanan] to New Mexico to share the lessons he and his colleagues have learned in Colorado with our community partners, state policymakers, and UNM faculty and students.”

The Just Transition team at UNM invited representatives from US Representative Melanie Stansbury’s office and the New Mexico departments of Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources; Workforce Solutions; Environment; and Economic Development to a dinner with Buchanan to learn more about the work of the first state-level office in the United States dedicated to assisting communities and workers in fossil fuel industries prosper through the shift to cleaner energy sources. Buchanan and others in attendance noted the importance of addressing just transitions at the federal level to assure that impacted workers and communities are treated equitably across states.

Buchanan’s prior work experience in Colorado public policy includes work as a policy director, director of the state energy office, and acting executive director of the Department of Natural Resources. He also led a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring economic mobility for Coloradoans through research and advocacy.