Clean Energy Jobs and Industry Promotion

By Mark Dennin

James Carville’s old adage, “It’s the economy, stupid!” is once again relevant.

Ads funded by the oil and gas industry featuring job-centric taglines are popping up on national television and buses and billboards all over D.C. Taglines like “I choose jobs. I choose energy,” imply that while renewables may have feel-good qualities like cleanliness and sustainability, fossil fuels still power the economy and provide an abundance of middle class jobs.

There’s just one problem: Clean energy does provide jobs. A lot of jobs. And there is huge potential for many more.

Jobs vs. Environment

Clean energy advocates have become too comfortable with the current “jobs vs. environment” framework. A Sierra Club internal memo leaked to the Daily Caller instructed allies not to overemphasize potential green jobs, and many groups, like NextGen Climate and are focusing on fighting projects whose proponents say create jobs, like building the Keystone XL pipeline and expanding natural gas fracking. These jobs claims are often exaggerated, however; recent reports show that Keystone XL will only create 35 permanent jobs and rosy numbers for fracking jobs take into account large supply chains.

In a tough economy with recent snowstorms that fit nicely into climate deniers’ talking points, Americans can hardly be blamed for supporting the most economical energy source, and clever marketing has them believing that fossil fuels are better for cheap energy and job creation for the near future. After all, unemployment was the number one American concern in February. Changing the conversation is key to winning the hearts and minds of moderates whose primary focus is on the economy.

Pro-Business Allies, Pro-Business Messaging

The clean energy industry already has environmentalists in their corner. Now it needs moderate Americans and entrepreneurs. For clean energy companies today, support from the Chamber of Commerce is worth ten times the support from the Sierra Club. “Carbon free” is not a selling point for the unemployed. Americans want a business that can grow, become profitable, and support Americans jobs.

The notion that oil and gas have cornered the market on quality jobs is false. According to a 2011 report by the Brookings Institution, the clean energy industry actually employed more workers than the fossil fuel industry, around 2.7 million people. The solar industry alone is growing ten times faster than national average employment, with multiple reports showing that solar employs more people than the coal industry. If you are wondering where these opportunities are, Environmental Entrepreneurs has put out an interactive map that highlights clean jobs demand state-by-state.

Not a Zero-Sum Game

The balance between economic and environmental concerns is not a zero-sum game. Choosing clean energy means choosing jobs. Clean energy generated nearly 80,000 jobs in 2013, despite regulatory uncertainty around the expiration of the wind Production Tax Credit (PTC). Supporting initiatives like the PTC will only increase the amount of jobs clean energy creates.

Job quality is also important to take into consideration. Jobs in coal mines and on oil rigs are dirty, dangerous, and hazardous to health. According to ABC News, 50-60 coal miners die every year on the job, while fires and explosions occur much too often on offshore oil rigs. Green jobs, while not without common safety hazards, are much safer.

Clean energy already has working class allies it should be touting more aggressively, chiefly organized labor. Six unions joined the NRDC and Sierra Club, along with other environmental groups, in opposing the building of the Keystone XL pipeline, instead opting for greener alternatives. Middle class Americans need to hear more stories like this.

The fossil fuel industry has been growing since the industrial revolution, for better or for worse. Clean energy is still young, but has proven to have great potential to be a job creator and a significant provider of energy in this country. Aside from the obvious environmental benefits and ability slow climate change, Americans want to hear that clean energy will create jobs and spur the economy.

Advocates would be wise to understand average Americans’ greatest concerns, and show that it isn’t a choice between jobs or the environment; with clean energy we can choose both.

Mark is a Spring 2014 member at the Clean Energy Leadership Institute - an organization devoted to elevating the next generation of clean energy leaders. He recently completed a journalism masters and currently works as a Legislative Manager for the Monument Policy Group. Mark is interested in energy security security issues like decreasing our demand on foreign oil, and climate change issues, especially when it comes to mitigating and adapting to issues like extreme weather and sea-level rise.