Commentary

Pa. doesn’t have to choose between good jobs and a healthy environment | Opinion

December 1, 2020 6:30 am

Storm clouds over Pittsburgh, Pa. (Photo via Flickr Commons)

By Joseph Otis Minott

There’s a persistent misconception that policy steps toward a sustainable environment must come at the cost of jobs. That blue collar workers and green initiatives are somehow inherently at odds. That in certain parts of the country you have a binary choice — a stable economy or a healthier environment. It’s a tired argument, and it’s simply not true.

Yet the false claim is often repeated here in Pennsylvania, and this past election was no exception. From President Donald Trump down to state legislative candidates, many running for office this cycle tried to convince Pennsylvania voters this false choice was a reason to elect them.

Fortunately, the clear majority of voters rejected this message. President-elect Biden has laid out a detailed plan to boldly address climate change and evolve our nation’s energy industry that relies on creating millions of high-paying jobs.

Nowhere is that undertaking more important than in Pennsylvania, an energy powerhouse and significant greenhouse gas polluting state.

It’s essential that all elected officials recognize that a majority of workers and Pennsylvania voters support commonsense steps to protect and promote jobs in tandem with safeguarding our environment.

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The oil and gas industry, and the politicians it supports, are quick to roll out the “jobs vs. environment” talking point whenever there’s a threat to the status quo.

In fact, it’s that very status quo that poses the greatest threat. Rising temperatures, extreme weather and other impacts of climate change have become a reality for Pennsylvania business and families.

According to the state auditor general, the result is millions of dollars in taxpayer burden and public health crises more likely to affect poor communities and communities of color. The crisis of climate change is a threat to sustainable employment across industries today and for generations to come.

The transition to renewable energy and energy efficiency is already creating significant employment opportunities in the Commonwealth. Of the 20,000 electric power generation jobs in Pennsylvania, the solar energy sector now employs the most workers. Solar energy jobs grew at a rate almost double that of traditional fossil fuel jobs in 2019, according to the U.S. Energy and Employment Report. The energy efficiency sector employs an additional 71,000 Pennsylvanians.

Nationwide, the two fastest-growing occupations are in the renewable energy space — solar photovoltaic installers and wind turbine service technicians.

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These jobs on the front lines of our nation’s expanding renewable infrastructure are just one part of broader employment opportunities with an environmental focus. There are also significant openings for good, high-paying union jobs.

And a majority of rank-and-file union workers favor policies that support creating more jobs in renewable energy and beyond. Nationwide, nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of union workers support the Green New Deal. That flies in the face of the traditional narrative that labor opposes government standards or oversight.

There’s growing evidence that more and more Pennsylvania voters aren’t buying the false choice between jobs and a sustainable future, either.

recent survey of Pennsylvania residents found that 63 percent agree that elected officials should support policies that encourage the use of clean energy sources instead of fossil fuels like oil and gas. These voters clearly believe this transition can happen without sacrificing workers’ abilities to provide for their families.

Governor Wolf has laid out a plan for advancing our state’s energy outlook while spurring innovation and creating more high-paying jobs.

Most importantly, he is committed to having Pennsylvania participate in the Regional Greenhouse Initiative (RGGI) by 2022, which would incentivize energy producers to eliminate pollution, driving down emissions and energy costs for residents and businesses. RGGI’s success in other states is well documented, not just in lowering carbon pollution but in creating employment opportunities around reducing those emissions.

Other initiatives would create job opportunities as well. The Wolf administration’s proposed rule to limit methane emissions and dangerous volatile organic compounds at tens of thousands of Pennsylvania oil and gas sites would spur new work.

A robust industry has developed around methane leak detection and repair, with hundreds of companies already operating nationwide. When employed in this field, workers utilize technology to detect leaking equipment and cut methane waste from oil and gas operations.

These are small businesses developing new technologies in the fight against climate change and hiring skilled workers for high-paying jobs. They’re flourishing, particularly in states that have made reducing pollution and reining in the oil and gas industry a priority. T

As we transition to a new presidential administration that recognizes that growing the economy and saving the environment are not mutually exclusive but instead complementary goals, we must ensure our other elected officials follow suit.

For Pennsylvania lawmakers, that means putting families before funders and supporting policies like RGGI that reward innovation while protecting our planet. We do not have to choose between good jobs and a sustainable environment. We can and must have both.

The policies we put in place today can establish Pennsylvania as a leader in supporting those jobs so families can put food on the table today – and for generations to come.

Joseph Otis Minott is the executive director and chief counsel of Clean Air Council. He writes from Philadelphia. His work appears occasionally on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. 

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