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Sean Sweeney

There May Be No Choice but to Nationalize Oil and Gas—and Renewables, Too

By Sean Sweeney - New Labor Forum, August 2020

Once on the margin of the margins, calls for the nationalization of U.S. fossil fuel interests arebgrowing. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the basic argument was this: nationalization could expedite the phasing out fossil fuels in order to reach climate targets while ensuring a “just transition” for workers in coal, oil, and gas. Nationalization would also remove the toxic political influence of “Big Oil” and other large fossil fuel corporations. The legal architecture for nationalization exists—principally via “eminent domain”—and should be used.

But the case for nationalization has gotten stronger in recent months. The share values of large fossil fuel companies have tanked, so this is a good time for the federal government to buy. In April 2020, one source estimated that a 100 percent government buyout of the entire sector would cost $700 billion, and a 51 percent stake in each of the major companies would, of course, be considerably less. However, in May 2020 stock prices rose by a third or so based on expectations of a fairly rapid restoration of demand.

But fears of a fresh wave of Covid-19 outbreaks sent shares tumbling downward in June. Nationalizing oil and gas would be a radical step, but this alone would not be enough to deliver a comprehensive energy transition that can meet climate goals as well as the social objectives of the Green New Deal. Such a massive task will require full public ownership of refineries, investor-owned utilities (IOUs), and nuclear and renewable energy interests.

Progressives may feel it’s unnecessary to go that far; why not focus on the “bad guys” in fossil fuels and leave the “good guys” in wind, solar, and “clean tech” alone? But this is not an option. The neoliberal “energy for profit” model is facing a full-spectrum breakdown, and the energy revolution that’s required to reach climate targets poses a series of formidable economic and technical challenges that will require careful energy planning and be anchored in a “public goods” approach. If we want a low carbon energy system, full public ownership is absolutely essential.

(Working Paper #13) Transition in Trouble?: The Rise and Fall of "Community Energy" in Europe

By Sean Sweeney, John Treat and Irene HongPing Shen - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, March 2020

This TUED Working Paper explores the current crisis of local, community, and cooperative energy. Our focus is Europe where these types of initiatives have made the most progress but now find themselves facing an uncertain future. In this paper we will explain what happened, and why. The goals of this paper are twofold.

The first goal is to draw a clear line of demarcation between the bold claims being made in the name of local and community energy, “energy citizenship,” and similar concepts on the one hand, and the cur-rent reality on the other—a reality that largely confines local energy initiatives to the margins of energy systems. In the case of Europe, the distance between the claims and the reality is vast, and it is widening.

Local and community energy has attracted a lot of support and enthusiasm from activists, and it is not hard to understand why this is the case. Efforts to advance community energy are frequently carried out in the name of a commitment to social justice, advancing equality, and empowering ordinary people to take a more active role in the transition to a low carbon future. Additionally, the activists and organizations undertaking such initiatives nearly always identify with a “values-driven” mission and aim to rise above considerations of personal gain or private profit.

For a period, it seemed that such initiatives were emerging everywhere across Europe. The growth of renewable energy and the proliferation of citizen and community ownership seemed to be in-separable from each other. Spurred on by falling costs of wind and solar technologies, a radical transition in energy ownership—and a shift in control away from large energy companies to small producers and consumers—seemed not only possible, but perhaps even imminent.

But recent policy changes in Europe have placed community energy into a pattern of decline. The removal of subsidies, particularly the Feed-in Tariff, and other incentives has led to a dramatic slow-down in local energy initiatives and cooperatives. The number of households installing solar photovoltaic panels (solar PV) has slowed to a crawl as onshore wind projects have also declined. While offshore wind installations are increasing, the total level of investment and deployment of renew-able energy in Europe has fallen dramatically.

Read the report (PDF).

Blueprint for Europe's Just Transition: The Green New Deal for Europe (Edition II)

By various - The Green New Deal for Europe, December 2019

Europe today confronts three overlapping crises.

The first is an economic crisis, with rising levels of poverty, insecurity, and homelessness across the continent. The second is a climate and environmental crisis, with severe consequences for Europe’s front-line communities and even more perilous ones on the horizon. And the third is a crisis of democracy. Across the continent, people are disconnected from the locus of political decision-making not only in Brussels, but also in the communities where they reside.

These crises are products of Europe’s political decisions, and they are closely bound together. The promotion of extractive growth has driven environmental breakdown, and the devotion to budget austerity — over and above the democratic needs expressed in communities across Europe — has constrained our capacity to respond to it.

A radically new approach is necessary to reverse this destructive trend — and to deliver environmental justice in Europe and around the world. We call this approach the Green New Deal for Europe, and the following report is a comprehensive policy pack-age charting a course through Europe’s just transition.

Read the report (PDF).

The Green New Deal and Labour

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, February 27, 2019

The Labor Network for Sustainability in the U.S.  published a new Discussion Paper written by Jeremy Brecher in late February.   18  Strategies for a Green New Deal: How to Make the Climate Mobilization Work  states that initial discussion of the Green New Deal resolution was rightly focussed on values and goals, but this Discussion paper moves on to the “how”- in 18 specific proposals which are itemized individually, but are intended to work together. The paper explains and consolidates many of the goals and strategies which have been proposed before by  LNS, including: protect low-income energy consumers and empower communities; mobilize labour and leave no worker behind; ensure worker rights and good union jobs, and yes, provide a “job guarantee.”  The 18 Strategies Discussion paper is summarized as “The Green New Deal can work: Here’s How”, which appeared in Commons Dreams on February 25  and was re-posted in  Resilience on Feb. 26.  In the article, Jermey Brecher states: “A GND will not pit workers against workers and discourage the growth of climate-protecting industries and jobs abroad. It will oppose both escalating trade wars and the free trade utopia of neoliberalism.”

The Labor Network for Sustainability has worked to build solidarity behind the Green New Deal, and on February 26,  published a Special  Issue of their newsletter, which profiles the GND endorsements and initiatives of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council in California, SEIU Locals 32BJ in New York, SIEU Local  1021 in San Francisco, and the Business Manager of IBEW Local 103 in Dorchester, Massachusetts, along with other examples and resources.  The LNS  website also hosts a new blog by Todd Vachon,  Green New Deal is a Good Deal for New Jersey workers , in which he argues for the GND and cites some of his research  which shows that union members are more likely than the general population to support environmental action.

Unions in Philippines Commit to Defend Power Generation Cooperatives, Drive Public Renewables

By Wilson Fortaleza - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, October 4, 2016

Pasig City, Philippines, Sept 24th, 2016 — The Center for Power Issues and Initiatives (CPII) was very grateful to have, as its main speaker to the Conference on Financing Renewable Energy and Energy Democracy, Prof. Sean Sweeney of the Murphy Institute, City University of New York, and Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED).

Held in 23-24 of September 2016, the conference, composed mainly of unions from the power sector, NGOs, and members of the academe, energetically discussed the concept of energy democracy and whether the Philippine government’s policies, specifically on financing renewable energy, would lead to the advancement of this alternative framework. Unions present were from the electric cooperatives and power generation and are affiliated to SENTRO. Unions from NAGKAISA also sent representatives. Finally, the unions resolved to include in their collective bargaining provisions on the shift to RE and just transition for those needing it.

The conference, which got a generous support from the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) Philippine Office, was the fourth of a series on renewable energy organized by FES and the CPII. The first was on the proposed re-commissioning of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP); the second was on the impending power crisis; and the third was Getting There, which discussed about the gaps in policies and program implementation that hinder the advance of green energy in the Philippines.

While acknowledging that energy democracy is a “contested” concept, Sweeney insisted that an alternative framework, which is an independent trade union and working class approach based on eco-socialist principles, must be vigorously pursued by the trade unions and social movements in addressing energy emergency, climate change, and the continuing control of private monopolies of the energy sector.

In his presentation Sweeney argued that despite the compelling statistics on climate and health crisis, energy production, particularly on power, continues to be dominated by fossil fuels,especially coal. Likewise, despite the rapid rise of renewable energy in the global energy mix, fossil fuel is not likely to be displaced soon as shown in the latest data of global energy consumption and carbon emissions.

However, Sweeney was very optimistic that the shift is reversible, not only because of the advancement in RE technology but also because the concept of energy democracy is gaining wide recognition and practical application all over the world. In Germany, for instance, 60 cities have reclaimed their grids from private companies and 5 UK cities are soon to follow.

Unfortunately, he added, acceptance of pro-market ideas is still dominating the union approach as in the case of social partnership and social dialogue framework that influence many EU trade unions.

Pope’s encyclical sets the tone for June 29th Trade Union Climate Summit in New York

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, June 17, 2015

Just 11 days after Pope Francis released his encyclical on the environment, New York will host a major gathering of 40 unions from 14 countries. With resistance to ‘extreme extraction,’ austerity and inequality all rising, unions see opportunities to begin to build a united global movement for fundamental change.  The Pope’s radical critique of the existing system is sure to resonate with the 100-person gathering.

More than 40 unions from 14 countries will participate in a one-day Trade Union Climate Summit in New York City on June 29th, 2015.  Hosted by 32BJ SEIU, approximately 25 unions from the US will be present, representing workers in energy, nursing and health care, public transport, food and retail, building services, as well as new organizing efforts among precarious workers in the New York City area. Roughly 30 allied organizations will also participate, including the Climate Justice Alliance, 350.org, and the Emerald Cities Collaborative. A full list of registered participants is here.

Why a summit?

The summit is being organized nine months after the massive People’s Climate March on September 21, 2014, and just 5 months before the ‘last chance’ UN climate negotiations (COP 21) in Paris in early December 2015. Unions and close allies will come together in New York determined to find ways to help better connect the rising climate movement with the growing global struggle against austerity and inequality.  Unions have been playing an important role in both movements, but in most instances fighting for climate protection (read: people protection) and building opposition to austerity, low pay and precarious work remain separate struggles. But the potential for building a new and tranformational ‘climate and class movement’ appears to be growing.

This potential seems particularly visible in Southern Europe where the left has won impressive electoral victories in recent months. Importantly, this is a left for which atmospheric and ecological degradation is not an afterthought, but a central question that reveals a basic truth: we live in a political economy that takes but does not give back. Both nature and labor are inseparable, and both are treated as a ‘resource’ from which value is extracted as needed and then dumped.

The June 29 summit in New York will hear from unions from Greece (Thessaloniki water workers) and Spain (Comisiones Obreras) as well as from Italy (CGIL) where the traditional political parties are also losing support. With an eye on the Paris climate talks, the summit will hear from two representatives from the main French trade union federation (CGT) regarding the preparations for the events around COP21.  The UN climate meetings have been the scene of large mobilizations in recent years, particularly Copenhagen in late 2009 and Durban in late 2011.

Winning Clean Energy & Climate Justice for All

By Sean Sweeney - The Murphy Institute, June 20, 2017

Sean Sweeney, from Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED), speaking at the 2017 People’s Summit, held on June 9-11th, on the three tasks to win energy democracy in front of the labor movement today.

Trade Unions For Energy Democracy: Asia-Pacific Regional meeting

By staff - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, August 29, 2017

Agenda:

Chair: Lance McCallum (National Campaign Coordinator, Australian Council of Trade Unions)

1. Sean Sweeney (Director, Trade Unions for Energy Democracy) :
A. Keystone USA: Calling from Nebraska: testifying against jobs claims for Keystone pipeline, strong movement in republican state also from first nations and environment groups
B. USA: Positive TUED presence at recent People’s Summit in Chicago – good traction in USA and support from Bernie Sanders supporting unions for TUED – this is against the spilt over energy in unions in the USA
C. UK: Labour party has adopted platform of energy democracy – Corbyn’s excellent result is encouraging–the platform is not straightforward nationalisation rather focused on initiatives like municipal control and procurement. Further movement from the Trade Union Council (UK) through recent motion to split up big power utility companies
D. Europe: Successful first meeting in Geneva that brought together cross section of European unions including – France, UK and Basque region. Resolved to produce framing statement for COP 23 when in Bonn.
E. South Africa: NUMSA and new national centre (SAFTU) undertaking strike action against the closure of coal and adoption of privatised renewable energy. Potential to strike at 6 power stations currently. Potential for NUMSA and SAFTU to embark on campaign for nationwide just transition campaigns (which would be first of such scale)
F. Australia: impressed by latest video on social media by ACTU starting a conversation about nationalising electricity system.
Questions

Colin Long: TUED presence at COP 23: Yes TUED is applying to host side event, have presence as part of union contingent, potential street protests. ITUC contact is Annabel Rosenberg – organising ITUC event.

2. Kate Lee ( Executive Officer: Union Aid Abroad – APHEDA)
a. India trip: End of November, 2017
TNI India is organising conference for unions, academics and state governments to explore climate impacts and energy democracy opportunities in India. Sean Sweeney will attend and speak with good opportunities for more discussion regarding the TUED analysis. There will also be an opportunity to link with a global unions meeting in the region. Following this Sean will be able to visit Nepal to visit TUED unions there for further discussions. Interested unions are welcome to participate – contact Kate for further details
b. Tom Reddington’s position
Tom has recently started working at Union Aid Abroad –APHEDA as the climate justice and energy democracy organiser. He has capacity to support the TUED Asia-Pacific network. He is progressing the mapping exercise from the recent New York meeting and will be distributing a short survey for members to complete soon.
Questions:
Greg Mclean will send Kate Lee contacts re. Energy democracy and unions in India (Prayas and Raman Khan)
Colin Long: interested in bringing Bangladeshi unionist to Australia to discuss new coal projects (e.g. Adani) from their perspective and worker exploitation

(Working Paper #10) Preparing a Public Pathway: Confronting the Investment Crisis in Renewable Energy

By By Sean Sweeney and John Treat - Trade Unions For Energy Democracy, November 2017

Inadequate levels of investment in renewable energy are a major obstacle standing in the way of the transition to a new, renewables-based energy system. TUED Working Paper 9, Energy Transition: Are We Winning? raised this investment deficit in passing and in a very broad context: Fossil-based energy use is rising globally, and renewables have so far failed to seriously alter the overall direction of global energy systems. “Modern renewables” like wind and solar remain on the margins of the global energy system. At the end of 2015, wind and solar PV together generated just 4.6% of global electricity.

By using the term “investment deficit” we aim to draw attention to the discrepancy between the levels of investment in renewable energy that are currently being seen around the world and those levels that are widely considered necessary to meet the science-based emissions targets and temperature thresholds articulated in the 2015 Paris Climate Accord: “well below two degrees Celsius” and “net zero emissions.”

It is also necessary to stress at the outset that the investment deficit in renewable energy is part of a much larger investment shortfall in what are often referred to as “low-carbon solutions” or “green technologies” (including, for example, storage and conservation). We touch briefly on this below but focus mainly on generation— principally wind and solar power.

Echoing a string of recent reports, a 2017 study by the International Energy Agency and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IEA-IRENA), Perspectives for the Energy Transition: Investment Needs for a Low-Carbon Energy System, estimated that investment in renewable energy needs to be more than double 2016 levels by 2030, reaching roughly $600 billion per year, in order to be consistent with the effort to keep global temperatures below the warming threshold of two degrees Celsius. This means approximately $14 trillion of investment in wind and solar generation, combined, by 2030.

Like many similar studies, however, the IEA-IRENA study fails to explain why, in a world awash with “idle capital,” the investment deficit in renewables exists at all. The present paper attempts to address this crucial issue. We believe that an honest review of the data and the policy history leave no doubt that the dominant policy paradigm—justified (and perhaps blinded) by a constant insistence on the need to “mobilize private sector investment”—has failed, even on its own terms, either to generate the kind of momentum needed to drive a full-on energy transition or to seriously impede the rise in fossil fuel use. We believe such a review also shows that the prospects for the dominant policy paradigm to produce results consistent with any serious effort to reduce emissions—let alone meet the Paris targets—are extremely poor.

We will attempt to show that any effort to address the investment deficit must deal with its systemic and institutional roots. These roots trace back to the privatization and liberalization of electricity markets that began in the UK in the 1980s, became EU policy in the 1990s, and have since come to define the dominant policy approach in many parts of the world. Even where energy systems have remained publicly owned, the policy approach to renewables is oriented toward private corporations and investors.

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