The Myth of the “Just Transition”

For fringe Democrats seeking to completely ban responsible oil and natural gas development in the United States, the most popular phrase of the 2020 campaign has been the “Just Transition.”

The purported idea of the plan is to transition workers in the fossil fuel industry into new jobs in the renewable sector without disruptive losses in employment and pay.

But it’s really all a myth.

Studies have shown that government retraining programs for workers haven’t been successful and that transitioning workers consistently go through spells of unemployment and often are forced to settle for lower pay in new jobs. Nonetheless, fringe Democrats and the “Keep It In The Ground” activists supporting them have made it a top priority to stop all oil and natural gas development and related infrastructure, regardless of the many workers likely to be hurt in the process.

The “just transition” myth has been exposed most notably by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) who introduced legislation to ban fracking nationwide and discussed the need for a “Just Transition” in her Green New Deal.

Yet, when the COVID-19 pandemic caused massive economic damage and sent the demand for oil, plummeting, Ocasio-Cortez delighted in the news, even though thousands of workers were losing their jobs. She tweeted, “You absolutely love to see it.”

Ocasio-Cortez quickly deleted the tweet, but as Energy In Depth reported at the time, it wasn’t exactly a typo as  fringe House Democrats had just introduced legislation preventing any CARES Act funds from going to fossil fuel companies during the COVID-19 pandemic. That bill didn’t even pretend to care about a “Just Transition.” Rather, the bill aimed to eliminate as many oil and natural gas jobs immediately as possible with absolutely no safety net for the workers.

The plan introduced by the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis and blessed by House Democratic leadership even establishes an entirely new government body devoted to a “Just Transition”:

“Funds could be used for a variety of initiatives, including building partnerships to attract and invest in the economic future of historically fossil fuel-dependent communities; guaranteeing pensions and retirement security; providing education, retraining, and retooling support for individuals and communities; providing a bridge of wage support until a displaced worker either finds employment or reaches retirement. …The legislation would also establish a Just Transition Advisory Committee to assist in the management and allocation of the transition funds.” (emphasis added)

Even if the calls for a “Just Transition” are serious, what are the views of the actual workers who will be affected? According to a new report from the North America’s Building Trades Unions that surveyed energy construction workers, they certainly aren’t singing its praises:

“Tradespeople working in energy construction report that they consider projects in oil and natural gas industries to have better wages, benefits, and opportunities than renewables projects. Tradespeople also report that the oil and natural gas industries offer projects with longer durations than those in renewables industries, which means steadier income and more consistent benefits.”

Covering the report, E&E News offered a warning to Democrats and presidential nominee Joe Biden, who has endorsed his own work transition plan:

“The studies could be a blinking red light for Democrats, as former Vice President Joe Biden, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, tries to build support for a major U.S. spending push to boost clean energy at the expense of fossil fuels. The Biden campaign is selling its new $2 trillion clean energy plan as a job creation machine.”

And it’s not just energy construction workers and those out in the field. According to data analyzed by career planning site Zippia, petroleum engineering is far and away the best paying college major.

Fringe Democrats will continue to pressure Biden and all Democrats to embrace plans that ban oil and natural gas development and focus on a just transition as seen in the so-called “Unity” plan that Biden introduced along with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), another avowed opponent of fracking, with the climate task force led by none other than Ocasio-Cortez.

It’s the same from “Keep It In The Ground” activists who recently applauded the news that three natural gas pipelines had been halted even though those projects would have created thousands of jobs and supplied local communities with millions in tax revenue.

There were plenty of tweets like the below celebrating major job losses for energy construction workers but none that talked about a “Just Transition.”

Another hurdle facing oil and natural gas workers and others employed in the energy industry is the clear evidence that government-sponsored retraining programs simply don’t produce good results. Examining the Green New Deal, Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy says:

“Despite promises from the federal government for a quarter century to provide worker retraining, education, and other support to help communities displaced by globalization and displacement, both parties have failed to fulfill those promises.”

Another report by environmental think-tank Resources For The Future found that transiting workers often will be jobless for a time and have lower pay in their new job:

“A (transitional) worker who loses his job won’t immediately find a new job at the same wage, but instead will likely spend a significant amount of time searching for work and might well need to accept a lower wage in the new job.

“… Workers who lose their jobs in mass-layoff events suffer not just a spell of unemployment, but also have persistently lower earnings for a long period even after finding a new job.”

The bottom line is that efforts to ban fracking, stop pipelines or delay end-use infrastructure like power plants that are putting Americans to work, when successful, have real consequences that none of the “just transition” talk has offered realistic solutions for – to the detriment of American workers.

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