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Why 2 million (promised) green jobs couldn't sell a climate bill

August 3, 2010 |  7:06 pm
From the early days of the Obama administration, environmentalists believed that they had found the message to carry them to victory in what promised to be a grueling debate over energy and climate policy. It was this: At a time of soaring unemployment, a climate bill would create thousands or millions of new “clean energy” jobs.

Climate activists spent 18 months and millions of dollars pushing that message, contending that legislation to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions blamed for climate change would spur investments and create jobs in solar, wind and other alternatives to fossil fuels.

But those arguments lost out in the Senate to competing forces -- most glaringly, warnings that emissions limits would push electric rates higher, killing jobs and stunting growth that depends on cheap oil, coal and natural gas.

Activists, along with some economists and business leaders, say the outcome stands as a stark example of the challenges in reshaping and revitalizing the United States economy.

The argument that climate legislation would create jobs “did not get traction,” in the Senate, said John Rowe, chairman and CEO of the Chicago-based electric utility giant Exelon and a climate bill supporter. “And that’s probably because, if you build or run a big central station plant, coal or nuclear, you can see a lot of high-paying jobs that are right there closely identified with it. If you build more distributed things like solar and wind, it’s more difficult to identify jobs to go with it.”

“It’s kind of the tangible and countable versus the less tangible and harder to see,” he added, “but there really are jobs in renewables, and there certainly will be jobs in new technologies. You just can’t say, 'this will put 1,000 boilermakers to work tomorrow.' ”

In many ways, the economic debate over emissions limits pitted some of the economy’s industrial backbones against potential growth engines of the future.

While several business coalitions endorsed emissions limits – including some major utilities, manufacturers, retailers and even a few oil companies – fossil-fuel and other business interests fought hard against the bill.

Both sides produced economic studies, from progressive and free-market think tanks, predicting either runaway job creation or massive economic harm from a climate bill. (Government analyses, from the Environmental Protection Agency and Energy Information Administration, showed modest costs from proposed climate legislation, but only a small-scale growth in wind and solar power.)

Environmental groups poured tens of millions of dollars into advertising campaigns touting clean-energy jobs, a message their polls showed voters responding to. Coal and oil groups countered with ads warning of higher energy costs.

On Capitol Hill, the fossil-fuel crowd enjoyed two key advantages. One was influence: Oil and gas companies have combined for nearly $90 million in federal lobbying expenditures and campaign contributions so far this year, according to records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Wind, solar and other “alternative energy” firms have tallied about $16 million.

Clean-energy advocates also lacked major economic clout in most senators’ home states. Only California and Texas boasted more than 50,000 “clean” jobs in 2007, according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“When it comes to senators on the fence, it pays to think about the stakeholders who are important to them, and the constituencies who are important,” said Eric Pooley, author of “The Climate War,” an exhaustive account of recent battles over climate policy. In their states, he added, those senators “tend to have key business interests – utilities or manufacturers – who are opposed” to climate action.

By summer’s end, it was clear that climate activists lacked the 60-vote threshold of senators who bought into the rosier claims of job growth. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) left emissions limits out of the energy bill he pushed to the Senate floor.

Asked why climate legislation failed, the president of the American Petroleum Institute, Jack Gerard, told reporters last week that “I don’t think the American public is there yet… The entire country is focused on jobs and the economy. Anything that might discourage jobs and employment” will be a tough sell.

Some climate activists doubt that economic arguments will ever help sell emissions limits. “I’m trying to think of another regulatory policy that’s been sold as a job policy,” said Michael A. Levi, who directs the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I can’t think of one.”

Others say future climate legislation should focus more directly on economics – namely, boosting alternative energy by taxing fossil fuels and using the money to research and scale-up production of lower-cost clean-energy technologies.

“There are a lot of tangible costs associated with forcing a switch to clean energy,” said Jesse Jenkins,  director of energy and climate policy at the Breakthrough Institute, a progressive think tank in Oakland. “Those costs won’t go away until clean energy technology gets cheaper.”

Some climate bill advocates say pressure for action will continue to mount as competitors such as China ramp up renewable energy production and senators look for ways to create similar jobs in their home states.

 “More and more companies in Ohio – small business, manufacturers – see opportunity and potential in selling component parts for wind turbines,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who is pushing smaller measures such as tax credits and other clean-energy incentives in the wake of the climate bill collapse. “Every day we delay investments in clean energy, China spends $51 million to speed right past us.”

In late July, incidentally, news reports suggested China was poised to set up a carbon trading system – akin to the one Reid left out of the Senate energy bill.

-- Jim Tankersley, in Washington
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