Granholm, Manchin take stage in debate over energy jobs

Granholm says the administration wants to bring jobs to areas hard-hit by the transition to cleaner energy

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III worries the transition to clean energy will leave his state's coal miners behind. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III worries the transition to clean energy will leave his state's coal miners behind. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 19, 2021 at 2:24pm, Updated at 5:11pm

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm promised that the Biden administration is working on ways to help communities like those in West Virginia devastated by the decline of coal and other fossil fuels, even as that state's senior senator warned that the global economy will continue to demand fossil fuels whether or not they're produced in the United States.

Speaking virtually Monday at the National Press Club, Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Congress should remember that climate change is a global problem.

Manchin and Granholm spoke as the Biden administration touts a $2 trillion infrastructure plan and a $1.53 trillion fiscal 2022 budget that would invest heavily in clean energy initiatives it says will create new jobs. It also comes as lawmakers from fossil-fuel producing states question whether those jobs will be available to workers displaced by the transition to low-carbon energy sources.

Manchin, a potential swing vote on Biden’s public works proposal in a Senate split 50-50 between Republicans and the Democratic caucus, said the U.S. should invest in and export new energy tools to make fossil energy worldwide less damaging.

“We have many of our lawmakers in Washington and we have many people who believe just quit using fossil. That's all, that'll take care of the problem. It's called global climate, it's not called North American climate, it's not called West Virginia climate, it's global,” Manchin said.

[Biden weaves climate crisis throughout his budget outline]

Foreign nations, he said, “are going to use whatever fuels they have in their backyard. With that, we have to entice them to use the new technology, which we should be developing and manufacturing in America, preferably in West Virginia.”

The number of coal-mining jobs in America hit a peak of about 180,000 in 1985, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. That tally has generally fallen since. There were approximately 43,600 people employed in coal mining in March, data show.

Granholm, speaking at a virtual clean energy conference organized by the Labor Energy Partnership of the Energy Futures Initiative and the AFL-CIO, referenced a soon-to-be-released administration report on identifying communities hit hardest by energy market shifts and shrinking opportunities in fossil fuels.

The administration wants to direct federal resources to those communities, not just for retraining programs, but for convincing companies to locate their operations in those areas, she said.

Targeting jobs

“When we build the industries of the future in these communities, we're committed to creating and maintaining jobs in the short term, the medium term, with skills-matched work,” she said.

Specifically, Granholm pointed to the infrastructure proposal the administration is pushing on Capitol Hill.

She said that proposal would launch 15 “decarbonized hydrogen” demonstration projects and 10 carbon capture retrofits in steel, cement, chemical and power plants.

Those programs would all be located in distressed communities.

She also highlighted the plan’s $16 billion for capping oil and gas wells, reclaiming coal and hard rock mines and reducing methane leaks.

“All kinds of jobs for all kinds of people,” she said. “Energy workers should be able to jump right into those.”

About 90 percent of the jobs created by the administration’s proposal would require little more than a high school diploma, she said.

“So it opens the aperture for who can get a good-paying job and we're going to invest $100 billion in workforce development to ensure that anybody who wants those jobs are going to be able to get them,” Granholm said.

Also Monday, a survey produced by an energy and economics affiliate of the Natural Resources Defense Council said U.S. clean energy jobs suffered a setback in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The clean energy workforce in the U.S. shed about 300,000 jobs last year as pandemic restrictions prevented technicians from entering commercial buildings and homes, the solar industry contracted and jobs in grid modernization slowed, according to a survey of federal labor, wage and energy data by E2, the NRDC affiliate.

The energy-efficiency industry “took the biggest tumble,” the report said, with jobs down 11 percent last year as measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as lockdowns and social distancing, thwarted installers from working inside clients’ properties.

While wind energy employment slightly increased in the U.S., solar employment fell as pandemic measures in the first half of 2020 prevented workers from accessing homes and other private buildings.

Median hourly wages for clean energy jobs — a category the E2 analysis defines as posts in the energy efficiency, renewable energy, clean vehicles, grid, storage, biomass and ethanol fields — are 25 percent higher than the national median wage.

They also “pay better than most fossil fuel extraction jobs,” the E2 authors write.

Roughly 3 million Americans were employed in clean energy jobs at the end of 2020, down from 3.36 million the prior year, according to the E2 report.

California, Florida, New York and Texas lead the country in clean energy jobs, though Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan and Ohio all counted more than 100,000 workers in such jobs last year.