By: James Han, Contributor
One of the centerpieces of the 2016 presidential election was President Donald Trump’s plan to bring back coal and other fossil fuel jobs by tearing down Obama-era environmental regulations. Here’s the problem: there simply aren’t that many jobs in the fossil fuel industry. As of August 2017, the Bureau of Labor Statics reports approximately 50.7 thousand jobs in the coal industry. This does represent a relatively insignificant increase from January 2017 when there were about 50,000 coal industry jobs. According to the 2017 US Energy and Jobs Report, 187,117 jobs exist in the coal, oil, and natural gas electricity generation sectors combined. While it is important to note that these numbers exclude mining of fossil fuels for purposes besides generating electricity – such as metallurgical coal – these numbers aren’t growing with much energy.
Terrible jokes aside, the United States has been pushing for more energy independence and energy jobs since the energy crisis of 1970’s. Shale oil has been a new and fairly lucrative source of energy, resulting in shale becoming more than half of American oil exports. Yet, new jobs aren’t pouring in at a rate that can rebuild energy sector employment. Sure, American exports of fossil fuels have been undeniably vital to rebuilding the US economy and have made the US an energy producer to rival that of Russia. Unfortunately, this status hasn’t made a significant change in the quality of life for those that have relied on mines and older oil wells for their livelihood. The fact of the matter is, the way fossil fuels are mined has changed due to automation. Gone are the days when a large scale mining operation could sustain an entire community. Now, robots and advanced machinery can mine mountainsides faster and with less workers.
Automation seems like a harbinger of death to American energy jobs, but there is hope in different sources of energy. Renewable sources of energy, such as wind, solar, hydroelectricity are constantly developing and becoming more and more feasible. In 2016 a little under 374,000 thousand jobs were in solar electricity generation alone. This number doesn’t just represent engineers years and years of education, but also represents a growing number of contractors, manufacturers, and other jobs related to transporting, building, and maintaining solar energy. These jobs are just in the solar electricity generation sector alone and fail to include other sources of renewable energy. Wind energy also fields an impressive 101,738 workers to bolster the size of the renewable energy industry. The renewable industry simply represents a gigantic workforce across the nation.
The real problem though isn’t the amount of jobs that currently exist, but the amount of jobs that can be created. As previously mentioned, new coal jobs simply aren’t pouring in, even with the Trump administration tearing down regulations. However, solar energy alone added about 73,000 new jobs last year, essentially adding the amount of coal energy generation to its own ranks. Renewable energy is growing as more and more companies and investors work towards building infrastructure for new energy. Renewable energy can and should be built up as means of creating energy in the future. The investment in these technologies is already fueling job growth not just in engineers, but for workers who have been left without hope from a dying coal industry. Solar and wind technologies improve every day and aren’t the “boondogles” they used to be.
Many believe that there simply isn’t any hope in renewable energy because of the ease that fossil fuels present now and that the jobs created simply won’t last or aren’t worth the cost. The argument that fossil fuels will soon run out seems to have failed to galvanize voters and investors en masse. A select few visionaries are pushing toward a future run on renewable energy who simply can’t. However, there are also massive benefits to renewable energy beyond creating jobs. Barring the benefits of clean air and better environmental practices regarding groundwater, creating renewable energy infrastructure allows the United States to lower its dependency on foreign fossil fuels. While there is an element of being able to control supply and demand now that the US is pumping oil, the US simply lacks the ability to shift the markets like OPEC can. This means that when OPEC feels threatened, they can shift prices to damage American oil companies to maintain a competitive edge. However, renewable energy in the United States isn’t subject to such a stranglehold. Sure, sometimes wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, but the United States is so large that these conditions don’t hold across the entire country. Furthermore, energy storage is getting to the point that companies can store vast amounts of energy to be distributed and sent across the country through pressurized gas and other new technology. This transport network also requires people to send energy across the country to bring energy everywhere, further creating job.
Unfortunately, the future of blue collar jobs in the fossil fuel industry is virtually nonexistent and no amount of regulation gutting will bring them back. To create jobs, we must let go of our past and look toward new and innovative ways of generating electricity. Blue collar workers will not be left behind as technology advances so long as companies continue to invest in creating infrastructure in hopes of bringing clean and cheap energy independant of international meddling to the masses. The paradigm of the past is over. It’s time for a new, renewable future.
Image Credits: By Molgreen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons