Clean energy politics could run through GOP-led districts

Source: By Peter Behr, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, February 25, 2021

Republican-held congressional districts running through the nation’s center hold the most potential for creating jobs in wind and solar power and could be a key to jump-starting successful clean energy political strategies, a Brookings Institution study concludes.

But from Texas to Montana and the Dakotas, a lot of congressional districts with clean energy potential are also hubs for coal, oil or gas production. Analysts at Brookings said that creates a high barrier for developing a national climate policy.

“The clean economy transition isn’t as simple as doing what’s right for the planet,” the Brookings authors said. Where fossil fuel industries have deep roots, the threat of job losses in the coal, oil and gas sectors speaks more loudly than combating the worst effects of climate change.

That political dynamic became clear during last week’s electricity crisis in Texas. Led by Gov. Greg Abbott (R), prominent critics of clean energy policies quickly blamed the Texas blackouts on the state’s wind turbines despite failures across the power grid and the freezing up of natural gas-fired generators.

“There’s a culture of fear” about the renewable power transition, said Adie Tomer, who heads the infrastructure initiative at Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program. It amplifies the pain of job and economic losses from the coronavirus pandemic, which spawned losses of more than 100,000 oil, gas and petrochemical jobs between March and August, according to research firm Deloitte (Energywire, Feb. 9).

Anxieties over climate policy parallels long-standing public anger in communities hit hard by economic and job losses resulting from trade agreements, Tomer added. “We have not had a great record in helping communities on the wrong side of an industrial transformation,” he said.

To break the political logjam, the report’s authors said, political leaders have to convince these communities that a climate-driven transition can deliver sustainable jobs.

In 2019, 1.7 million people directly worked in these fossil fuel occupations, according to Brookings. The American Petroleum Institute says the oil and gas industry supports a total of 10 million direct and indirect U.S. jobs.

President Biden has pledged not to make them clean energy casualties. “This nation needs millions of construction, manufacturing, engineering and skilled-trades workers to build a new American infrastructure and clean energy economy,” Biden said last month in signing a series of climate-related executive orders.

A potential political solution is “hiding in plain sight,” the authors said. Federal and state policy should give priority for investment incentives and job training to areas that have both fossil fuel jobs on the chopping block and also the potential for new low-carbon jobs. Making that linkage can “reduce obstructionism in many of the communities that question the transition to renewables,” the report said.

Drawing on research by the University of Texas, Austin, the report maps U.S. counties with the strongest wind and solar energy potential, making them the most economically competitive future locations for the vast expansion of renewable energy required by the Biden administration’s clean energy goals. These areas are then compared to the strongest concentrations of the nation’s oil, gas and coal extraction, production, construction, refining and energy generation.

Making big bets

The report found that one-quarter of U.S. counties with strong potential for wind and solar jobs are also fossil fuel hubs.

“In certain counties in West Texas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, North Dakota, and West Virginia, 30% to 50% of all workers are employed in [fossil] industries,” said the report. Other clusters range from Los Angeles to Pennsylvania.

“Because fossil fuel jobs are geographically concentrated,” said the Brookings researchers, “they create an outsized influence on their local economies and public opinion about climate issues.”

The Brookings analysis recommended specific policy steps, including pinpointing which communities have most to gain and lose from a clean energy transition. The federal government should support partnerships with educational, labor and community organizations to support job training, the report said.

It cautioned that workers in some fossil fuel-dependent counties in Kentucky, Minnesota and West Virginia don’t have the renewable energy potential that could make a skills transfer succeed, and for them, other support will be required.

A smooth transfer between fossil fuel and clean energy jobs faces a timing challenge. Job losses from plant closings are a sudden, deep wound, while the growth of clean energy employment usually takes a much longer path, particularly if specialized training is required.

The skills hurdle has been dramatically demonstrated in California in the past few years. The state’s largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., has faced repeated condemnation from a federal judge over the need for more tree trimmers to reduce a dangerous backlog of dead and diseased trees that can become tinder for wildfires.

At a hearing last year, utility lawyer Kevin Orsini noted that PG&E had increased its force of tree workers from 1,755 to over 5,000 in a year, but said its efforts to add even more have been stymied. “There simply are not enough people out there to do the tree work,” he said. “It’s a very dangerous job, generally. When you’re doing it in the vicinity of power lines, the danger is amplified dramatically.”

“Well, OK, if there’s a shortage, that’s why, just like when the Army is short on soldiers, they recruit. And they train. And so they expand to suit the need,” rejoined U.S. District Judge William Alsup.

Orsini said the utility has begged tree contractors to send more workers to the state. “We’ve heard stories through the union of tree-trimming companies that have rows of new trucks sitting there, waiting to roll down the street, if only they had the people to put into them.”