Administration officials such as White House climate adviser Gina McCarthy and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm scheduled events on Monday to make the case that the president’s fight against climate change will be a net gain for employment, creating more jobs than it will eliminate. Labor leaders at some of the events underscored the wariness of workers.
A pledge to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by about 50% from 2005 levels by the end of the decade, which Biden is expected to announce this week, would require dramatic changes to curb planet-warming pollution from the nation’s power plants, automobiles, oil wells and agriculture.
“It means adding hundreds of gigawatts of zero carbon energy at the same time as expanding our transmission system,” Granholm said said Monday at an event featuring AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka entitled “Accelerating the Energy Transition to Deep Decarbonization: Infrastructure, Jobs and Equity.” “It’s going to take millions of people getting to work.”
Trumka warned, however, that workers don’t want to bear the brunt of the changes.
“As we transition to clean energy we are not going to give up an inch or sacrifice a dollar for false promises of just retraining,” Trumka said at the event. “We simply won’t allow the transition to be done on our backs.”
That event followed one featuring McCarthy and labor leaders organized by the World Resources Institute.
McCarthy said the Biden administration is committed to unleashing “the jobs of the future” and ensuring that building a sustainable, clean energy economy does, in fact, provide them.
The goal is to “make sure that we’re not asking workers to leave jobs for other jobs that simply don’t pay sufficiently or they don’t have access to,” McCarthy said.
That’s a theme United Mine Workers of America President Cecil E. Roberts Jr. raised in a separate event Monday morning in Washington with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.
“Ensuring our coal miners aren’t left behind as America transitions to a cleaner future is one of my top priorities,” said Manchin, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
He called for funding research into carbon capture and sequestration and incentives for domestic energy manufacturing.
“We don’t come here with our hat in hand,” Roberts said. “We’ve given this country a lot.”
The union posted a plan on how to preserve coal jobs in an energy transition on its website Monday.
“Change is coming, whether we seek it or not,” the union said in the post. “The rise of renewable energy — windmills, solar panels, geothermal energy — is transforming the energy marketplace and the jobs that go with it.”
The plan calls for dramatically increasing funding for carbon capture and sequestration and five-year waivers from clean energy mandates for coal-fired power plants that commit to installing the “clean coal” technology. It also includes creating incentives for domestic steel production, and expanding tax credits for renewable energy manufacturing in coalfield areas.
As the administration argues the nation’s climate goals will unleash clean energy jobs, the president faces pressure from progressive Democrats to do even more. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York on Monday advanced a proposal meant to modernize public housing and lower carbon dioxide emissions.
Biden and the rest of his team have been pitching efforts to fight climate change as an economic opportunity, an argument that will be central to winning public support.
Not everyone’s convinced.
“From our analysis, the cumulative impacts of the Biden climate agenda will be to kill good-paying jobs, many of which are union jobs, to reduce American competitiveness, and to make us more dependent on China for our energy,” said Tom Pyle, an adviser to former President Donald Trump and president of the American Energy Alliance, a free-market advocacy group.
Trump campaigned on promises to save the coal industry, and miners’ jobs, by rolling back climate initiatives from the Obama administration, but his efforts didn’t lead to an industry resurgence.
The U.S. had about 47,400 coal mining jobs as of January 2020 — about 7% fewer than when Trump was inaugurated in January 2017 — before the Covid pandemic crushed more of them.
That’s a far cry from the 863,000 coal miners in 1923, the heyday for the industry’s employment in the U.S., and before automation and sweeping changes in railroads, steelmaking, home heating and electric power generation.
One challenge for the Biden administration has been getting unions, a key Democratic constituency, on board with the president’s climate plans.
Biden’s decision to cancel the Keystone XL oil pipeline as one of his first actions after becoming president angered labor groups representing pipefitters and other workers who lost their jobs as a result.
Other Biden environmental goals, such as increasing the use of electric vehicles, have drawn concerns from unions that fear such a move could imperil the jobs of autoworkers.
Still, clean energy employs nearly three times as many workers in fossil fuel extraction and generation, according to an employment report released Monday by Environmental Entrepreneurs, a non-profit group that promotes clean energy. But the report also found that wages in clean energy are lower as whole than those in the fossil-fuel sector.