President Joe Biden: More Americans see and feel the devastation in big cities, small towns, coastlines, and in farmlands, in red states and blue states.
Tanzina Vega: After four years of climate denial and an embrace of fossil fuels under former President Trump, President Joe Biden is looking to clean up the country's energy policy. On his first day in office, Biden signed a number of executive orders reversing course on everything from the Paris Agreement to the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline. Though climate activists and others are celebrating these efforts, not everyone is on board. Some Republicans, including US Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, have alleged that Biden's recent climate actions jeopardize tens of thousands of jobs in the US, specifically citing the halting of the 1200 mile pipeline.
Shelley Moore Capito: In his first actions, President Biden managed to kill thousands of jobs and paralyze America's industries. This is economic, energy and national security disaster, in my view.
Tanzina: The debate over Keystone is raising questions about what kinds of jobs will be lost, and what kinds of jobs will emerge under the Biden administration's environmental policies.
President Biden: Key plank of our Build Back Better Recovery Plan is building a modern, resilient climate infrastructure and clean energy future that will create millions of good-paying union jobs, not $7, $8, $10, $12 an hour, but prevailing wage and benefits.
Tanzina: I'm Tanzina Vega. The tension between the climate crisis and the jobs crisis is where we start today on The Takeaway. Heather Richards is an Energy Reporter with E&E News. Heather, welcome to The Takeaway.
Heather Richards: Hey, thanks for having me.
Tanzina: Jason Walsh is the Executive Director of the BlueGreen Alliance, which works to unite labor unions and environmental organizations. Jason, glad to have you on the show.
Jason Walsh: It's good to be here.
Tanzina: Heather, let's start with you. I want to play exchange between Fox News reporter Peter Doocy and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, that sort of gets to the core of this issue, let's take a listen.
Peter Doocy: Why is it that the Biden administration's going to let the thousands of fossil fuel industry workers, whether it's pipeline workers or construction workers, who are either out of work or will soon be out of work because of a Biden EO,what it is and where it is that they can go for their green job?
Jen Psaki: I certainly welcome you to present your data of all the thousands and thousands of people who won't be getting a green job, maybe next time you're here, you can present that. The president and many Democrats and Republicans in Congress believe that investment in infrastructure, building infrastructure, that's in our national interests, and that boosts the US economy, creates good-paying union jobs.
Tanzina: Heather, Press Secretary Psaki there sort of deflected the issue really, but let's get to the core of what reporter Peter Doocy is asking here, where do the folks who stand to lose these jobs get replacement jobs?
Heather Richards: It's kind of a difficult-- I don't think I have a very easy answer. It's a difficult question in a way just because there's an assumption that somebody is going to go from a pipeline to working on a wind farm or something along those lines, and it's a bit more complicated than that. Obviously, if you kill a construction project, no matter what it is, and there are some people that have a contract to be laborers on that, then they no longer have that contract, they have to look somewhere else for another contract, which is how pipeline workers kind of string together their jobs.
Anyway, green jobs, on the other hand, is something that is kind of promised to come as a part of this massive investment that the president has called for. It's not a tit for tat, it's not an easy thing to say. You lost your job, or you lost this contract here, you're going to get a contract here, which I think is why it's difficult for her to answer that.
Tanzina: Heather, what is the debate about these Keystone job or losses we should stay represent? What's the bigger picture here?
Heather Richards: People are either on one side or the other of it, depending on what their politics are, for the most part, pipelines have become just a very difficult topic. People who don't really follow, and gas are these kind of issues closely, probably still have an opinion on whether or not the Keystone XL Pipeline should go through.
This is a debate that's going on, this particular pipeline is a debate that's been going on since 2008 when it was first proposed, but folks have kind of weighed in because if they have all these worries about climate change, and they don't want any more pipelines, they don't want any more crude moving from here to there, and folks who are on the other side of it, who support fossil fuel development into the future, say this is how you get gasoline for your cars, you have to move it somehow, you're not being realistic, there's all these people that depend on this for jobs.
It's just a very difficult loggerheads in terms of people who feel one way about it, another way about it, and Keystone XL is just one of the pipelines and one of the projects that kind of falls right in the middle of that fight.
Tanzina: Jason, I want to bring you into the conversation here because the Keystone pipeline jobs, as Heather astutely points out, are very specific types of jobs, it's a specific industry, there are other industries, particularly in manufacturing that under President Trump were sort of made at least a political priority for the President to hold onto, because many of those jobs, manufacturing jobs had also been in jeopardy. What's the historical context for those types of jobs and how they fared in places like Detroit and Pittsburgh?
Jason Walsh: I think each community, each part of the country has a slightly different history. I think, in your reference to Detroit and Pittsburgh, we have to look at a history of de-industrialization in both places, that was often not responded to with good policy and good public investment by elected officials. Bad trade policy, bad economic policy, enabled some of that de-industrialization. I think many workers and many unions are rightly leery of any kind of transition, whether we call it just transition or something else. The reality is that, over the last several decades, in particular, we have not seen a major economic shift, whether it's globalization and offshoring of manufacturing or the gigification of the economy that has been fair to workers.
Tanzina: Are we talking about specific times of workers, Jason? Because, when we talk about green jobs, to Heather's point and others, I think the idea here is that these are jobs that we are creating a pipeline, for now, that will ultimately result in employment down the road, but the folks that are caught in the middle now, I guess are what we're talking about, those folks that seems to get left behind, not in some sort of future iteration of a jobs plan, but today.
Jason Walsh: Let's be clear, these are not just hypothetical jobs in the future. According to the best counts before COVID, there were roughly 3 million Americans working in the clean energy economy, those are real jobs. The problem is that we often have a geographic mismatch between where the majority of fossil fuel jobs are being lost and where the majority of clean energy jobs are being created, but it's not as if we have no potential response to that. We can target public investment and we can target policy in a way that spreads those jobs out. We also have to recognize that many fossil fuel jobs are often concentrated in communities that have a very narrow economic base, this is particularly true in coal communities.
Part of the public policy response has to include helping those communities diversify their economies, and not just in the energy sector, more broadly, into manufacturing, into transportation, into agriculture, into tourism and recreation. I think we also need to recognize that in a sector, like construction, and Heather alluded to this, there are very few distinct occupations and distinct skills for green jobs versus other jobs.
A journeyman electrician builds a utility-scale solar project with largely the same set of skills that she or he builds a fossil fuel project with, and so it's really about where we're targeting our investment and how we're structuring our economy so that those workers and their skills are applied to jobs that are actually going to result in some public goods here, which includes cleaner water, cleaner air, a livable planet.
Tanzina: Heather, talking about, Jason mentioned the coal industry, President Trump made a big deal about coal, bringing back coal, it was a big political point for him, but in reality, about 10,000 coal jobs were eliminated or lost. What happened?
Heather Richards: Coal has been struggling for 10, 15 years quite seriously. Some of that has speeded up in the last few years, coal has been pushed out of the power sector, this is thermal coal that we burn for electricity, used to be the biggest chunk of our electricity was coming from coal, and that began to erode as cheap natural gas was replacing that, that's the oil and gas industry, did a really good job of figuring out how to drill and use hydraulic fracturing and things like that to find oil and gas in places we never thought we would before. Then you had this boom of natural gas and oil across the country, which pressed down the price of natural gas. All of a sudden, you had this cheap resource, coal was no longer the cheapest resource. That market switch was happening over time. President Trump definitely made a big deal about coal. That, again, was played into people's identities. We really appreciate coal miners, there's a narrative about coal miners in the country that we all listened to and believe in these old workers who have done all this stuff to power the country.
The reality is that there was no policy that can suddenly change a market that's in freefall. That market has continued to erode. With that goes the jobs.
Tanzina: What about the fossil fuel industry, Heather? How is that trajectory looked in recent years?
Heather Richards: As a whole, it's complicated oil, and gas is a bit different in the sense that it's cyclical, when you have a lot of crude oil and if you produced a lot of crude oil, the price goes down, and then you have bankruptcies and layoffs. Then when the price goes up, everybody gets hired back. That back and forth is the history of the oil and gas business. The climate change poses a really interesting question, of course, down the road. People are looking at a very different world someday in the future. Much sooner, I guess, in some people's minds than others, where we have electric vehicles instead of such heavy reliance on gasoline and diesel and jet fuel and those kinds of things.
Tanzina: No, I was just going to ask Jason, how unions were feeling about Biden's clean energy push, right now?
Jason Walsh: I'll give you a short answer now, but a longer when we come back. I think the unions and the BlueGreen Alliance are extremely excited that the president recognizes that we have not just a climate crisis in this country, but also a crisis of economic inequality, and that we should be pursuing intersecting solutions to those intersecting crises. One of the principal ways to do that is to build a clean energy future with high-quality union jobs that are accessible to all Americans.
Tanzina: Do you see the potential for green energy jobs to potentially rectify and embrace a more diverse working pool of people?
Jason Walsh: Absolutely. We have to be completely intentional about that, right? It starts with the recognition that we have unacceptable systemic levels of racism and racial inequity in this country. Right? We've got to address it. We have tools and we have models for how to ensure that as we build a clean energy economy, we are actually lifting people out of poverty and making jobs more accessible. We have community benefit agreements, for example, which are often applied on large construction projects that include career pipelines of pre-apprenticeship to registered apprenticeship programs with local hiring so that community members, where projects are being built, actually get the jobs that come from that investment. We have pipelines into registered apprenticeship programs that are not just jobs and not just careers. Then I think we also have to look at the fact that unionization itself is a way in which we address inequities, right? Because one of the things that unionization does is to confront directly wage discrimination through contracts, right? The data shows that, for example, a Black union member earns 28% more in wages on average, compared to a non-union Black worker in this country. I think we have a number of tools to address that. I think President Biden has been very clear that he sees building a clean energy a future, as also a way of addressing historic and current inequities. We just got to get it done.
Tanzina: Let's talk a little bit about what these jobs could offer. Coal and oil and gas workers can make as much as 6 figures up to $100,000 a year. So far, from what we understand, the average solar installation job pays about 45,000 a year, maybe about half that. What is it going to take for green jobs to become comparable in terms of salary, Jason, to fossil fuel jobs?
Jason Walsh: You need to close the gap in union density between clean energy jobs, like solar and wind, and jobs in incumbent energy sectors. Union density in solar wind jobs is roughly 4% to 6%. That is two to three times less than union density rates in fossil electric power generation. Until we close that gap, we're not going to close the wage and benefit gap, because the single best way of doing that is to ensure that workers can collectively bargain with their employers for better wages and benefits and working conditions.
Tanzina: Heather, what hurdles do we expect the Biden administration to face when trying to implement their green jobs plan going forward? We're already hearing some opposition from some Republican members of Congress who were fearing the loss of these jobs. Is there anything the Biden administration can do? I guess the first question would be, is it possible to even retrain current fossil fuel workers to be clean energy workers, to participate in the current clean energy jobs that are available? If that doesn't happen, what other hurdles will Biden face?
Heather Richards: Retraining is a tricky issue that tends to make people pretty angry in fossil fuel country, I think. I think, to some degree, because historically that's been the bone that's thrown in that direction. If people talk about, "Hey, we're going to move away from these fossil fuel jobs so we can give you a training program," it's not to say training programs are bad, it's just that when we talk about a transition that affects individual workers, as well as communities, we're talking about a whole ecosystem.
Even though those are ecosystems that are stuck in certain areas, which is like what Jason referred to, we have places like Eastern Wyoming that are dependent on coal, parts of Appalachia that are very dependent on coal, parts of Southern Louisiana that are dependent on oil.
Those ecosystems are complicated. When we talk about the transition, I think one of the things that gets lost is that it's not as simple as sending somebody to a program to learn how to be a wind technician. Yes, if one technician jobs are paid as well as fossil fuel jobs, maybe that would be the number one thing that we do. I think that when people talk about the energy transition and the challenges, and people are very realistic and very honest about what's going on, what we're talking about is, what happens to the community at large, what happens to those individual workers. I think a lot of folks are saying you have to have a bigger concept about what happens when you take away fossil fuel jobs.
It's not that it's impossible or horrific, but it is something that has a huge impact. I think, hopefully, there's room for that in policy to understand that there's a big impact there, that goes beyond retraining. I think that there is a huge challenge in understanding that and making sure that people who are making political decisions at a high level understand that.
One of the biggest problems to that is that the people that are fighting for fossil fuel jobs are fighting for the existence of fossil fuel jobs, and are not necessarily folks that are going to be saying, "Okay, we're definitely going to lose these jobs. What do we do for the communities?" There's a disconnect in terms of how this has talked about politically and makes it hard to have these kind of honest conversations. What is happening regardless of policy, what is happening because of policy, and then what kind of policies do we put in place to help workers, to help communities that are affected by the transition?
Tanzina: Heather Richards is an Energy Reporter with E$E News. Jason Walsh is the Executive Director of the BlueGreen Alliance. Thanks to you both for joining.
Heather Richards: Thank you.
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