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US Energy Transition Presents Organized Labor With New Opportunities, But Also Some Old Challenges

By Delger Erdenesanaa - Inside Climate News, July 27, 2021

President Biden’s push for “good, union jobs” in clean energy has increased hope that organizing solar and wind workers can close the pay gap between them and fossil fuel workers.

President Biden’s push for “good, union jobs” in clean energy has increased hope that organizing solar and wind workers can close the pay gap between them and fossil fuel workers.

Two years ago, Skip Bailey noticed a lot of trucks from a company called Solar Holler driving around Huntington, West Virginia. A union organizer with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Bailey saw an opportunity.

“We want to get in on the solar business,” he said, predicting the industry will grow in his home region, which includes historic coal communities in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio.

Bailey talked to Solar Holler about unionizing its employees who install photovoltaic panels on homes. IBEW showed the company its local training facility for electricians, and explained the health insurance and pension plans it offers. 

“It wasn’t a hard sell in either direction,” said the company’s founder and CEO, Dan Conant. He was already interested in securing union protections for his employees when Bailey contacted him, he said. The move fit with Solar Holler’s dedication to West Virginia’s legacy of energy production and strong union membership.

“It was not just good business, but it just really spoke to our history as a state,” he said.

Conant and Bailey’s efforts paid off in March 2020, when IBEW Local 317 and Solar Holler signed a contract. It’s just a start—Solar Holler only has about 20 unionized employees—but the agreement is an early example of the future Joe Biden is promising. The president frequently pledges to create millions of jobs while transitioning the U.S. to clean energy. Every time he does, he’s quick to add that these will be “good, union jobs that expand the middle class.”

“It’s a great talking point,” said Joe Uehlein, president of the Maryland-based Labor Network for Sustainability, an advocacy group pushing to unionize green jobs. But he added that Biden faces a difficult balancing act to achieve his pledge. 

Combatting Climate Change, Reversing Inequality: A Climate Jobs Program for Texas

By Lara R. Skinner, J. Mijin Cha, Hunter Moskowitz, and Matt Phillips - ILR Worker Institute, Cornell, July 26, 2021

Texas is currently confronted by three major, intersecting crises: the COVID-19 public health pandemic and ensuing economic crisis; a growing crisis of inequality of income, wealth, race and power; and the worsening climate crisis, which continues to take its toll on Texans through hurricanes, major flood events, wildfires, debilitating heat waves and the significant economic cost of these extreme weather events. These crises both expose and deepen existing inequalities, disproportionately impacting working families, women, Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities, immigrants, and the most vulnerable in our society.

A well-designed recovery from the COVID-19 global health pandemic, however, can simultaneously tackle these intersecting crises. We can put people to work in high-quality, family- and community-sustaining careers, and we can build the 21st century infrastructure we need to tackle the climate crisis and drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. Indeed, in order to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis, it is essential that our economic recovery focus on developing a climate-friendly economy. Moreover, there are significant jobs and economic development opportunities related to building a clean energy economy. One study shows that 25 million jobs will be created in the U.S. over the next three decades by electrifying our building and transportation sectors, manufacturing electric vehicles and other low-carbon products, installing solar, wind and other renewables, making our homes and buildings highly-efficient, massively expanding and improving public transit, and much more.

Conversely, a clean, low-carbon economy built with low-wage, low-quality jobs will only exacerbate our current crisis of inequality. The new clean energy economy can support good jobs with good benefits and a pipeline for historically disadvantaged communities to high-quality, paid on-the-job training programs that lead to career advancement. Currently, the vast majority of energy efficiency, solar and wind work is non-union, and the work can be low-wage and low-quality, even as the safety requirements of solar electrical systems, for example, necesitate well-trained, highly-skilled workers.

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As the US Pursues Clean Energy and the Climate Goals of the Paris Agreement, Communities Dependent on the Fossil Fuel Economy Look for a Just Transition

By Judy Fahys - Inside Climate News, June 28, 2021

Perhaps the proudest achievement of Michael Kourianos’ first term as mayor of Price, Utah was helping to make the local university hub the state’s first to run entirely on clean energy. It’s a curious position for the son, brother and grandchild of coal miners who’s worked in local coal-fired power plants for 42 years.

Kourianos sees big changes on the horizon brought by shifts in world energy markets and customer demands, as well as in politics. The mines and plants that powered a bustling economy here in Carbon County and neighboring Emery County for generations are gone or winding down, and Kourianos is hoping to win reelection so he can keep stoking the entrepreneurial energy and partnerships that are moving his community forward.

“That freight train is coming at us,” he said. “You look at all the other communities that were around during the early times of coal, they’re not around.

“That’s my fear,” he said. “That’s my driving force.”

New research from Resources for the Future points out that hundreds of areas like central Utah are facing painful hardships because of the clean-energy transformation that will be necessary if the United States hopes to reach the Paris agreement’s goals to slow climate change. Lost jobs and wages, a shrinking population and an erosion of the tax base that supports roads, schools and community services—they’re all costs of the economic shift that will be paid by those whose hard work fueled American prosperity for so long. 

“If we can address those challenges by helping communities diversify, helping people find new economic growth drivers and new economic opportunities, that might lessen some of the opposition to moving forward with the ambitious climate policy that we need,” said the report’s author, Daniel Raimi, who is also a lecturer at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.

Meeting the Paris agreement’s target of keeping global temperature rise “well below 2 degrees C” by the end of the century means Americans must burn 90 percent less coal over the next two decades and half as much oil and natural gas, Raimi said.

And less fossil fuel use will also affect employment, public finances and economic development region-by-region, according to Raimi. In 50 of the nation’s 3,006 counties, 25 percent or more of all wages are tied to fossil fuel energy, he notes. In 16 counties, 25 percent or more of their total jobs are related to fossil energy.

Biden Says He Backs a Just Transition for the Climate Crisis. Advocates Say, “Prove It.”

By Rachel M. Cohen - In These Times, June 2, 2021

While the administration has taken some early steps to provide support for energy workers and frontline communities in the transition away from fossil fuels, experts and activists say the crisis demands a more transformative approach.

One of the most difficult problems that political leaders have faced in addressing climate change has not involved the science or technology, but the politics, including bringing key constituencies like energy workers and their labor unions on board. This skepticism and resistance to change is why a so-called ​“just transition” — referring to an ethical and economically secure shift away from a fossil-fuel powered economy — has become so integral to crafting a successful climate plan. 

Figuring out how to provide economic security for both energy workers that have depended on the nation’s fossil fuels and frontline communities has become a leading priority for activists and elected officials alike. The Biden administration, for its part, has thrown its weight behind developing a just transition, though some advocates tell In These Times that federal leaders haven’t gone far enough, or worry the executive branch’s rhetoric won’t deliver real results. Other researchers have called for more careful study of past economic transitions, as well as more firm commitments around social programs such as universal healthcare. 

On January 27, one week after taking office, Biden signed an executive order establishing an interagency working group focused on addressing the economic needs of ​“coal, oil, gas, and power plant communities.” The group, co-chaired by National Economic Council director Brian Deese and National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy, is a collaboration between 12 federal agencies including the labor, interior, treasury and energy departments. 

In late April the working group published an initial report identifying 25 of the most impacted regions for coal-related declines, and highlighted existing federal programs that could provide nearly $38 billion in funding for relief. The report noted that ​“creating good-paying union jobs in Energy Communities is necessary but not sufficient” and stressed that ​“foundational infrastructure investments” including broadband, water systems, roads, hospitals and other institutions would be necessary to economically revitalize these areas. The group also noted that a just transition would require prioritizing pollution mitigation and environmental remediation, like plugging leaking oil and gas wells and reclaiming abandoned mine land. These objectives hold the potential not only for job creation but also achieving environmental justice priorities.

Jobs and equitable transition: Bridging the chasm between rhetoric and action

By Sean O'Leary - Ohio River Valley Institute, May 26, 2021

There was a time when the sight of rows of office workers hammering away at their Friden adding machines would have sent me into paroxysms of delight because I, the Victor Comptometer salesman, had a new and better “programmable calculator” that could kick the Friden’s ass.

I was a young 1970s college graduate entering the workforce at the tail end of the era of mechanical business automation. Typewriters, adding machines, and mechanical cash registers were still the workhorses of stores and offices.

Behind all that machinery were companies – Burroughs, Monroe, Friden, Victor – whose names were as familiar then as Cisco, Oracle, and SAP are today. And those companies supported factories, sales offices, and repair facilities that provided living wage jobs to hundreds of thousands of workers and their families.

Then, within a little more than a decade, it was all gone. A year after I fizzled as a Victor salesman, I was playing at home with my new Radio Shack TRS-80 home computer and five years later, instead of an adding machine and typewriter on my desk at work, there sat an Apple II desktop computer, precursor to the Mac.

Gone too were those hundreds of thousands of jobs plunging not only workers and families, but entire communities, into financial crisis. One could argue that Dayton, Ohio, once home to National Cash Register and the business forms giant, Standard Register, never recovered.

The knock-out blow suffered by the office automation industry was as ferocious and sudden as the one that hit the American steel industry a few years earlier, the textile industry a few decades before that, and also as the one that possibly faces workers in the fossil fuel economy today.

So how did we as a society help displaced workers and communities manage the economic consequences of the transition from the mechanical workplace to a digital one? We didn’t. Thanks to the New Deal, we had unemployment insurance and Medicare and Medicaid were brand spanking new. But that was about it – a little help for individuals and families and none whatsoever for communities.

Does Shale Gas Extraction Grow Jobs?

72% of surveyed oil and gas workers in Canada want career transition, with many willing to accept wage reduction

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, April 12, 2021

A survey of over 2,000 respondents from across Canada who had previously worked in the oil and gas industry found that 72% indicated that their career priority was to make a career transition. Of that 72%, “35% indicated their desired employment situation was in a different role or industry; 14% were seeking a different work arrangement such as self-employment; and 12% planned to seek employment after additional training.” The survey results are summarized in two blogs on March 30, Untapped Talent: Opportunity to Transition, and Untapped Talent, Transitioning Opportunity , from Canada’s oil and gas labour market organization, PetroLMI. The survey was conducted from October 2019 to December 2020.

While a resistance to lower wages is frequently cited as a barrier to Just Transition, the PetroLMI survey showed that: “the wage expectations of respondents were not out of line given their education, experience and skills. When asked about their salary expectations, 61% indicated a salary of less than $100,000, and 28% were willing to take a reduction in their salary for stable employment. In Alberta more than 35% of respondents said they were willing to take a salary reduction.” 42% of respondents were over the age of 55; 77% had over 15 years of experience; 86% had post-secondary education – in Alberta, most held a university, while in the rest of Canada, trade certification was most cited.

From the industry point of view: “While layoffs rarely have a silver lining, these workforce reductions mean there is a robust pool of talent available for hire.” “The layoffs that occurred among respondents were broad and impacted a wide range of job families and occupations from trades, truck drivers, technologists and technicians to geoscientists, engineers and information technologists. The talent pool also included occupations that tended to be transferable across industries including finance, accounting, human resources, health and safety, sales, marketing and business development. They also included field operations and drilling workers with transferable skills such as working in safety-sensitive workplaces, critical thinking and problem-solving. As a result, construction and renewable energy companies have begun hiring from this talent pool.”

Canada’s Petroleum Labour Market Institute (PetroLMI- formerly the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada) produces ongoing labour market analysis, recently stating: “The cumulative impacts of a six-year economic downturn, lower demand due to COVID-19 health restrictions, and structural shifts in the oil and gas industry, mean there is a smaller oil and gas workforce in Canada – down 26%, or 58,700 jobs from its peak in 2014.” Their latest detailed labour market data, sourced from Statistics Canada, is here. Analytical reports are compiled here, including a four-part series titled “The Impact of COVID-19 on Canada’s Energy Workforce: A four-part series on work practices, productivity and opportunities”. On that topic, Norwegian consultancy Rystad Energy ranks Canada, U.S. and Australia as hardest hit in “Covid-19 job toll: Top O&G employer China resilient, US takes larger hit than European peers” , a March 9 newsletter. (The Canadian Energy Research Institute also published Economic Recovery Pathways for Canada’s Energy Industry: Part 2 – Canadian Crude Oil and Natural Gas in September 2020, modelling employment and economic impacts).

The oil and gas industry is failing its offshore workers. It’s time to give them a way out

By Helle Abelvik-Lawson - Greenpeace, March 31, 2021

Offshore oil and gas workers have been the backbone of Britain’s energy industry for fifty years. So it would seem that the government’s decision to continue issuing offshore oil licences in the North Sea would be welcome.

But all across the North East – from the Humber Estuary to Teesside in England, and all the way up to Aberdeen in Scotland – things aren’t actually going that well. The oil and gas industry is volatile, and communities are suffering from this volatility.

After years of decline, falling prices due to financial crises, Covid, and other economic shocks thanks to global oil politics, the UK’s oil and gas workers have been dealt a raw deal. Restructuring by major oil companies and their contractors and agencies has meant insecure work and falling salaries. And it’s some of the most dangerous work out there.

Now, the government’s focus on new oil licences ‘with climate conditions’ attached, is just kicking offshore workers’ problems into the long grass.

It shows how the government has so far been unable to get a grip on the needs of the UK’s energy key workers. According to a 2020 survey of offshore oil and gas workers, these overwhelmingly centre around government support to transition towards work in a stable, growing renewables sector.

This is not the way the government should be treating the country’s energy key workers. And it shows there is no government plan to help offshore workers transition smoothly to work in renewable energy.

Plus, If everyone copied the UK’s approach to fossil fuels, our globally agreed climate targets would not be met. The UK’s not exactly leading by example, ahead of hosting the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow this year.

Pipelines, Pandemics and Capital’s Death Cult: A Green Syndicalist View

By Jeff Shantz - LibCom, March 29, 2021

We can see this within any industry, within any capitalist enterprise. It is perhaps most clearly apparent, in an unadorned fashion, in extractives industries like mining, logging, or oil, where the consumption of nature (as resources) for profit leaves ecosystems ruined, where workers are forced to labor in dangerous, often deadly, conditions, and where it is all is carried out through direct dispossession, invasion, and occupation of Indigenous lands and through processes of mass killing, even genocide. And when it is all done, little remains except the traces of profit that have been extracted and taken elsewhere.

These intersections have come to the forefront with particular clarity under conditions of the Covid-19 pandemic. The death cult of capital on full display in all its variety of ways.

Political deregulation of Texan grid to blame for near total collapse & bills of $15,000+

By Andy Rowell - Oil Change International, February 25, 2021

If shivering with cold dark for days in sub-zero temperatures was not enough for many Texans, those lucky enough to still have electricity during the recent freezing weather have been hit with exorbitant electricity bills.

In some cases unlucky customers have been charged a whopping USD $15,000 for one month’s power, or put another way over 70 times the normal cost people pay for all their utilities.

One customer Susan Hosford of Denison told the AP that normally she pays around $2.50 for power per day, but got charged $1,346.17 for the first two weeks of February. “This whole thing has been a nightmare,” she said.

Another customer, Karen Knox, a teacher in Bedford, not only lost power but now owes $7,000 to Griddy, an electricity provider located in Houston. She told the Texas Tribune there was no way she could pay.

Such is the outcry that Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican who is heavily funded by Big Oil, had to hold an emergency meeting with legislators to discuss the outrageous bills.

Abbott and others are now promising relief for those hit by sky-high bills, although how people are compensated is yet to be worked out.

As the anger has grown, so too has the political fall-out and finger pointing and as to what has gone wrong and who is to blame.

The reason the grid failed is simple: political deregulation. Along with sixteen other states Texas had deregulated its power market. The market was deregulated in 2002, under the then Governor Rick Perry, who would later become President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Energy.

Perry established the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (known as ERCOT), with roughly 70 providers. And then the politicians cut Texas off from the rest of the country, the only state in the contiguous U.S. that was operating its own electric grid.

And because the Texas grid was then disconnected from the rest of the country, no reserves could be imported when the grid got into trouble.

“As someone who has spent the past two decades studying electricity deregulation, I know that extreme power bills in Texas result partly from the state’s market-driven approach to running the power grid,” wrote Seth Blumsack, Professor of Energy and Environmental Economics and International Affairs, at Penn State in the Conversation yesterday.

Blumsack continued: “the sky-high electric bills in Texas are partly due to a deregulated electricity system that allowed volatile wholesale costs to be passed directly to some consumers.”

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