These Oil Workers Back Clean Energy

Oil Worker For Clean Energy

Fossil fuel workers have a reputation as a roadblock to action against climate change. As Sammy Roth wrote in his recent Boiling Point newsletter on climate change for the LA Times, trades unions have long fought against limiting oil and gas extraction. After California Governor Gavin Newsom voiced support for a fracking ban in April, trade unions came out strongly in opposition. In 2017, an alliance between trade unions and the industry helped nudge Newsom's predecessor, Governor Jerry Brown, to embrace the cap-and-trade system, a policy which progressives see as too lax on industry. Yet recent events hint at a changing tide, showing the coalition between industry and unions against climate change policy to be much more uncertain and fragile than previously thought. A report just published this month advocating for a clean energy transition has already been endorsed by 19 unions, two of which represent thousands of California oil workers.

Why This Matters

This shift may seem unprecedented but it has been a long time coming. As Dave Campbell, secretary-treasurer of Local 675, explained to Roth: an energy transition is coming whether we like it or not, so the question now is how do unions protect their workers.

"As an oil worker, you're standing on the track, and you can see the train coming. We can argue about why the train is coming. We can argue about exactly when it’s going to get here. But it's coming," Campbell told Roth. "The choice for us is, do we stand on the track and face whatever happens? Or do we get up on the platform and try to catch that train going out of the station?"

The report shows that a clean energy transition will not only produce many new jobs in the green sector, but that protecting fossil fuel workers from the decline of the industry is not costly. First, it estimates that with sufficient investment, California could create between 418,000 to 626,000 clean energy jobs per year. Second, the cost of providing an equitable transition to fossil fuel workers who would lose their jobs -- which accounts for retirement, wage insurance, pension obligations, retraining and relocation -- comes out to $470 million per year, just 0.02% of the state's expected GDP.

IEA: Clean Energy Transitions Summit, June 12, 2020.

What Does this Mean Moving Forwards

Despite the cause for optimism, Roth cautions that "none of this will be easy." As he adds, bringing in historical context, "When industries such as steel production shrank or went away in the past, the result was typically huge job losses. Just because a less-painful transition is possible doesn't mean it will happen." Yet steel workers left behind by automation and a declining steel industry generally had no like-for-like industry in which their skills were readily applicable. Often the only jobs available were in the technology or information sectors. But the skills of fossil fuel workers may be more easily translated to clean energy. In a recent opinion piece published in The Guardian, Olúfẹ́mi O Táíwò, a philosopher at Georgetown University, and Johanna Bozuwa, co-manager of the Climate & Energy program at Democracy Collaborative, noted that workers can retool their skills on offshore oil rigs to build offshore wind production.

"There is a role for the workers, their skills and knowledge, and the equipment and infrastructure of oil and gas companies," they add.

The clean energy transition won't be easy and many workers won't like the change. Some union members, Campbell said, "don't even want to wrap their heads around it. It's too horrifying for them to think about." But what is clear is that trade unions, rather than bunker down with the fossil fuel industry, are starting to throw their weight behind ensuring and advocating an equitable and just transition to clean energy.

Center for Strategic & International Studies: Charting a Path for Just Transitions, March 10, 2021