President Biden is selling the climate friendly aspects of his $2 trillion infrastructure plan as a chance to create good-paying union jobs. But at a local branch of one of the country’s oldest unions, there are doubts that dealing with climate change will be good for workers here, in the oil-and-gas state of Pennsylvania.
Boilermakers Local 154 in Pittsburgh builds and maintains coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants. During a training session, a handful of members practice welding behind a thick blue safety curtain, part of preparations to repair and rebuild the boiler in a coal-fired power plant.
“That boiler is 100-some feet high,” explains Shawn Steffee, the business agent for Local 154. “And they go up, way up in that boiler.”
It’s highly skilled work that can pay well, sometimes six figures — the “pinnacle” of blue collar jobs, says Steffee. And it’s exactly the kind of job he worries will disappear if Biden’s climate policies speed up the decline of fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy.
If he were to go work in the solar industry, for example, Steffee says he’d be essentially starting over in a new trade, and risk losing some of his pension and other benefits.
“I’m going to throw everything away to go over here, and maybe start as an electrician?” he says. “I don’t know nothing about electrical. I know how to weld. I know how to build power plants.”
For a decade, Pennsylvania and other states have seen jobs in coal disappear as utilities have turned to cheaper natural gas. Now some in these states worry that ambitious climate goals — and cheaper wind and solar — mean oil and gas jobs will be the next to go.
What to do about fossil fuel workers in a shift to a low-carbon economy is a serious question that policy makers and experts are grappling with.
“Transitions are inherently tricky and complicated, and they always create winners and losers,” says Devashree Saha, a clean energy analyst with the non-profit World Resources Institute.
She says Biden’s plans to ramp up clean energy could create jobs in fields like electrical work and utilities. But these jobs won’t necessarily line up for those who currently work in fossil fuels.
“There’s always going to be that mismatch of geography. There’s going to be a mismatch of skills. There’s also going to be a mismatch of timing (for) fossil fuel workers,” Saha says.
The Biden administration has pledged to help with what some call a “just transition.” It could mean tax breaks and grants to diversify the economies of fossil fuel dependent states.
But it’s unclear how effective these programs would be.
Even if fossil fuel workers can find jobs in renewables, they often don’t pay as much. Many are with small or new companies, and their workers aren’t unionized. And after solar and wind farms are built, they don’t need many workers.
“It’s nothing like maintaining a coal-fired power plant,” says Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO. “You need a lot of men and women to maintain a coal fired power plant.”
Bloomingdale is still in favor of Biden’s infrastructure plans, but he wants a long lead time to transition the country to clean energy.
Biden has pledged to make the U.S. electricity sector carbon-neutral by 2035, and then make the entire economy carbon-neutral by 2050. Scientists say these types of massive reductions in heat-trapping gases are necessary to prevent the worst outcomes of climate change. But they’re a serious lift, and Biden may face challenges achieving them given the current divided Congress and conservative courts.
Renewables currently provide about 20 percent of U.S. electricity. Steffee, the local boilermaker business agent, doubts they’ll fully replace Americans’ thirst for cheap fossil fuels anytime soon.
“If that technology comes in the future, yes, I probably don’t have a job,” he says. “But right now, I just don’t see that happening.”
It’s unclear what this will all mean for young boilermakers like Caleb Marshall. He’s 29 and joined the union to follow in the footsteps of his father. Being in the trade has given him a sense of purpose, he says, and skills he can use no matter what happens to the industry.
“That’s what I love about the trade. I’m learning a skill that I can take wherever I go, and you learn it forever,” he says.
Biden’s climate and infrastructure proposal does have one thing fossil fuel unions have lobbied hard for.
It would invest more in carbon capture, which could keep coal and gas plants running without the carbon footprint. Some green groups oppose such spending. But it could win over some reluctant union members, and keep them working longer.
This story was a collaboration with StateImpact Pennsylvania.