Biden’s climate rhetoric could hit turmoil from some pro-fossil fuel unions
Renewable energy jobs don’t always match displaced workers
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalistic collaboration boosting coverage of climate history.
President Biden is selling the climate-friendly aspects of his $ 2 trillion infrastructure plan as a chance to create well-paying union jobs. But in a local branch of one of the nation’s oldest unions, there are doubts that tackling climate change will benefit workers here in the oil and gas state of Pennsylvania.
Pittsburgh Boilermakers Local 154 builds and maintains coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants. In a recent training session, a handful of members practiced welding behind a thick blue safety curtain, as part of preparations to repair and rebuild the boiler in a coal-fired power plant.
âThis boiler is 30 meters high,â said Shawn Steffee, the local sales representative. “And they go up, very high in this boiler, do this welding, then come down again.”
It’s highly skilled work that can pay well, sometimes six figures – the âpinnacleâ of blue-collar craftsmanship, Steffee said. And that’s exactly the kind of work he fears will disappear if Biden’s climate policies accelerate the decline of fossil fuels in favor of renewables.
If he were to work in the solar industry, for example, Steffee said he would essentially start over in a new trade and risk losing part of his pension and other benefits.
“I’m going to throw it all away to get here, and maybe start as an electrician?” he said. âI don’t know anything about electricity. I know how to weld. I know how to build power plants. “
For a decade, Pennsylvania and other states saw coal jobs disappear as utilities turned to cheaper natural gas. Today, some of those states fear that lofty climate targets – and cheaper wind and solar power – mean oil and gas jobs will be the next to disappear.
‘Winners and losers’
What to do with the country 1.6 million Fossil fuel workers in a transition to a low carbon economy is a serious issue facing policy makers and experts alike.
âTransitions are inherently delicate and complicated and they always create winners and losers,â said Devashree Saha, clean energy analyst at the nonprofit World Resources Institute.
She said President Biden’s plans to increase clean energy could create jobs in areas such as electrical works and utilities.
the plan calls for $ 35 billion for clean energy research and development, wind and solar power incentives, and a federal mandate to use more renewable energy. All of this could fuel a clean energy boom, but Saha said those jobs won’t necessarily line up for people who work in fossil fuels.
âThere will always be this geographic mismatch. There is going to be a skills mismatch. There will also be a time lag (for) fossil fuel workers, âSaha said.
States like Colorado and New Mexico have launched programs to address this mismatch. The Biden administration is committed to helping what some call a “just transition.” Tax breaks and subsidies are proposed to diversify the economies of states dependent on fossil fuels.
But all of Biden’s proposals are expected to gain congressional approval.
And while fossil fuel workers can find work in renewables, these jobs are often less paying. According to a recent report, renewable energy jobs pay a median wage of $ 24 an hour, while fossil fuel jobs pay around $ 26 an hour.
This is because many clean energy jobs are held by small or new businesses and their workers are not unionized. And after construction, solar and wind farms don’t need as many workers.
âThe problem isâ¦ there’s nothing quite like maintaining a coal-fired power plant,â said Rick Bloomingdale, president of the AFL-CIO of Pennsylvania. âIt takes a lot of men and women to maintain a coal-fired power plant. You don’t need it to maintain a solar farm. “
Bloomingdale supports Biden’s infrastructure plans, but wants a long delay in moving the country to clean energy.
Biden has pledged to bring the United States to carbon-free electricity by 2035 and a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. Scientists believe these types of massive reductions in heat-scavenging gases are needed to prevent the the worst outcomes of climate change.
But they’re a big boost, and Biden might have a hard time reaching them given the current divided Congress and a conservative Supreme Court..
The National Boilermakers Union says Biden’s plan is a ârealisticâ way to phase in renewable energy, which provides 20% of the country’s electricity. But Steffee, the union’s local sales agent in Pittsburgh, still considers a quick transition unlikely.
âIf this technology comes in the future. Yeah, I probably don’t have a job, “he said,” but at the moment I just don’t see that happening. “
It’s unclear what this will mean for young boilermakers like Caleb Marshall. He is 29 years old and joined the union four years ago to follow in his father’s footsteps. âI love my dad. I always wanted to be like him. I wanted to make my dad proud,â said Marshall, of McKeesport, Pa.
Being in the trade has given him a sense of purpose, he said, and skills he can always use – no matter what happens to the industry.
âThat’s what I like about the job. I’m learning a skill that I can take with me wherever I go and you learn it forever, âhe said. “Skills pay the bills.”
Biden’s plan has one thing the fossil fuel unions have been pushing for. It would invest more in carbon capture – which would allow coal and gas-fired power plants to operate without a carbon footprint.
Some environmental groups to oppose spending as a âbogus solutionâ that expands our dependence on fossil fuels without making drastic emission reductions. But that could convince some reluctant union members and make them work longer.