Oil beats renewables for pay and job quality — reports

Source: By David Ferris, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Construction workers say they view oil and natural gas jobs as better paying and more reliable bets on long-term employment than renewable energy jobs, according to a survey by a group of trade unions.

A pair of reports by North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU), a federation of 14 unions, suggested that entire trades are at risk of becoming obsolete in a transition to clean energy. It also reported that more workers felt there were “better perceived wages, benefits and opportunities” around building pipelines and other oil and gas projects than in jobs tied to renewable energy development.

The studies could be a blinking red light for Democrats, as former Vice President Joe Biden, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, tries to build support for a major U.S. spending push to boost clean energy at the expense of fossil fuels. The Biden campaign is selling its new $2 trillion clean energy plan as a job creation machine.

Building enthusiasm among blue-collar workers in purple states, from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin and Nevada, is a key part of Biden’s campaign strategy.

Biden has put unionization at the center of his clean energy plans, demanding new legislation that would remove barriers to union organizing at workplaces.

Among NABTU’s goals are increasing union membership and workforce training. Its energy membership is heavy among oil and gas workers but light among clean energy workers. NABTU President Sean McGarvey said some of NABTU’s member unions are in favor of Biden’s plan — especially those that do electrical work — while “other unions are looking at it and saying, ‘OK, how do my members, based on their skill sets, fit into these opportunities?'”

Unionization is also a priority for groups like the BlueGreen Alliance, a group of labor unions and environmental groups, that hailed the unionization part of NABTU’s report — though not its findings about clean energy jobs.

“Until the job-quality gap is closed, unions and their allies will rightly push back on the notion that replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy is an across-the-board, slam-dunk public good,” said BlueGreen’s executive director, Jason Walsh, in an interview.

The NABTU studies, released Friday, included in-depth interviews with 22 energy workers and eight focus groups held around the country. It also relied on an online survey filled out by more than 1,600 people, slightly less than half of whom belonged to unions. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. Energy Information Administration and EPA also played a part.

NABTU’s McGarvey, who has helped the American Petroleum Institute promote oil and gas interests in Washington, said jobs in zero-carbon technology like wind and solar power “aren’t as good of jobs as they are in the oil and gas construction and maintenance side of the energy industry.”

“We can’t transition into careers where people take a 50% or 75% pay cut,” he said. “That’s the problem we have right now, and that’s the problem we all have to solve.”

The study did not assert that the wage gap is that stark or even try to compare the relative wages of clean energy and oil and gas workers. The way that federal data is organized, that’s a difficult comparison to make.

According to an authoritative energy report, the construction and manufacturing portions of the oil and gas sector and the overall clean energy sector are similar in head count, at just over a quarter of a million people each.

The construction and manufacturing part of the oil and gas industry had a lower rate of unionization last year, at 3%, than either the overall solar industry, at 4%, or the wind industry, at 6%.

More wires, fewer pipes

At the heart of NABTU’s worries is the sort of jobs that would be created — or left behind — under a massive new clean energy jobs program.

In essence, the problem is that solar and wind energy rely on electricity sent by wire, not fossil fuel liquids or gases that are sent by pipe and stored in tanks.

The NABTU study identified the trades most in demand for the oil and gas industry as pipe layers, steamfitters, boilermakers and engineers who operate plants. The top trades in clean energy are photovoltaic installers, wiremen, roofers and electricians.

The two top-five lists have no overlap.

“You can’t just interchange the jobs from oil and gas construction to renewables construction, because you’ll leave out many workers, you’ll leave out many crafts, and you won’t have those pathways into the middle class that these good jobs provide,” said Tom Kriger, NABTU’s director of education and research.

NABTU’s highest-profile campaigns of late have been in support of pipelines. Two weeks ago, it condemned the shutdown of the Dakota Access and Atlantic Coast pipelines.

The studies released Friday reported that energy workers believe that oil and gas projects are longer in duration. That leads to more wage stability, and the job opportunities are more varied and stimulating than renewable energy work.

By a narrow margin, renewable energy jobs are considered safer.

Another gulf between the job demands of the oil and gas sector and the clean energy sector involves maintenance.

The NABTU report pointed out that while solar and wind farms require almost no maintenance after they’re built, oil refineries and pipelines need a lot, and with that comes jobs.

Oil and gas, McGarvey said, bring “a lot, a lot, a lot of hours on the maintenance side.”

Tied to that is how stimulating the work is.

According to one anonymous union electrician quoted in NABTU’s report, “In refineries there’s always new technology in production. … Wind you only have wind, solar you only have solar. There’s not anything really new that you can do with it other than it just runs a cell, or it blows the wind turbine blades.”

“But lots of different things in the petrochemical world change radically,” it continued. “And with those [changes] they have to do lots of upgrades to those units.”

If a Biden clean energy work program reached the scale necessary to combat climate change, the number of hours would overwhelm this debate, said Walsh of the BlueGreen Alliance.

“I think it leaves out how much more work will be created by clean energy,” he said. “The work hours that come with that transformation will dwarf everything else.”