Opinion

We Can Have Both Good Jobs and a Realistic Path to a Clean Energy Future

If you’ve been reading newspaper headlines in recent weeks, you may think environmentalists and unions are clashing with each other over clean energy policy. In fact, infrastructure unions such as LIUNA and climate advocates around the world share the same goal of fighting climate change. Where we differ passionately is in our strategy and approach to reaching that goal. It’s time to put to rest the false choice between jobs and the environment and have a rational discussion about a common-sense path to a clean energy future.

Just as our country’s energy mix is complex, so is the solution to climate change. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, about 37 percent of nation’s overall energy usage is from petroleum and about 16 percent is from coal.  Carbon-free nuclear power provides about 8 percent of our energy, but, a number of plants are slated for closure and new capacity is unlikely. That means more than half of our current energy sources face an uncertain future. A growing fossil fuel sector – natural gas – now accounts for nearly a third of our energy.

Often depicted as the panacea for our nation’s energy future, renewable energy sources are growing and now provide about 8 percent of our energy. The problem is, they are not growing fast enough, and demand continues to outpace capacity.  According to the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, it will be 2050 before the country will be 80 percent powered 24-7 by renewable energies.

We must act faster than that.

The Clean Power Plan, proposed by President Obama last year, challenges the United States to reduce our carbon emissions by nearly a third by 2030.  Every state has a target under this plan.

The plan is worthwhile and ambitious, but it also threatens to create a critical energy void.  If each state were to meet its goal solely by eliminating oil and coal, without adding any capacity, the United States faces at least a 21 percent power deficit by 2030. That is more electricity than the U.S. industrial sector consumed in 2015 for agriculture, assembly lines and construction combined.

As much as we embrace renewables, they are not ready to replace that lost energy by themselves. To fill that 2030 clean energy shortage, America would need over 3.8 million acres of solar panels – costing about $1.8 trillion and covering an area nearly twice the size of Yellowstone National Park.

The good news is that we don’t have to choose just one form of energy. Natural gas produces 50 percent less carbon than coal, and is credited as a key driver for the decline in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in recent years. Natural gas is also a critical backup fuel for renewables, many of which are intermittent power sources.   If the United States takes advantage of the abundance of natural gas and develops it to the highest environmental standards, we can be responsible stewards of the planet and provide power until renewables fully mature.

It is true that as a union of construction workers, our interest is in creating and protecting jobs that help men and women care for their families and their futures. We would be derelict in our responsibilities if that were not so. But we also understand and believe in the greater good – and that means leaving a legacy of cleaner air for our workers’ children and grandchildren.

We believe that our nation can set its sights on, and reach the goal of, an economy that dramatically reduces carbon emissions. It is not, however, rational to wage war against a major source of energy without an alternative, nor is it honest to equate reason and reality with disregard for the planet.

If environmentalists care about a path forward on climate change and clean energy, they should join with their allies in the working class on a common-sense plan to achieve their stated goal.

Terry O’Sullivan is General President of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, which represents a half-million workers predominantly in the construction industry.

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