By Abby Smith, Energy and Environment Reporter | February 18, 2021
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President Biden faces a daunting task to fulfill his promises to help fossil fuel workers maintain good-paying jobs even as he seeks to decarbonize the economy rapidly.
And while the major U.S. utility workers union sees hopeful signs in some of Biden’s early moves, its officials are cautioning that it won’t be easy for Biden to keep his pledges. That’s in part because other energy job opportunities, such as working in wind or solar energy, either aren’t a direct match for workers’ skill sets or lack the economic benefits offered by their prior jobs.
When a coal-fired power plant shuts down, those individual workers “probably just lost the best job they ever had and probably the best job they might ever have,” said Lee Anderson, director of government affairs for the Utility Workers Union of America, in a recent interview with the Washington Examiner.
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Utility jobs tend to have relatively high union density, with some of the best working-class wages in the economy and benefits such as pension access and “solid” healthcare plans, he added.
“Those things were all the result of decades of collective bargaining,” Anderson said. “You don’t just get that back with the wave of your hand.” He added that it is unrealistic to ask those workers, many of whom have families to provide for, to get a new education, too, potentially taking on student loan debt in the process.
Biden has promised to create clean energy jobs that offer good wages and are unionized. That is easier said than done, though, as Anderson said union rates across the economy have fallen in the past few decades.
Currently, the clean energy industry, including renewable energy, energy efficiency, clean fuels, and clean vehicles, has a 9% unionization rate, according to an October report from Environmental Entrepreneurs, the American Council on Renewable Energy, the Clean Energy Leadership Institute, and BW Research Partners.
Those groups said that the rate was slightly higher than the economy’s overall unionization rate of 6%. The utility industry, meanwhile, has a relatively high unionization rate of 20%, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“We don’t have a nonunion renewables sector. We have a nonunion economy because the labor movement has been basically destroyed over the course of the last several decades,” Anderson said.
“You don’t really move the needle on organizing the renewable industry until you move the needle on organizing the American economy,” he added.
The key question Biden’s team should be asking when it comes to fossil fuel workers, according to Anderson, is: “How do you get that person in a situation where they are empowered?”
In other words, policies put forth by the Biden team should give fossil fuel workers options and an economic cushion rather than simply jamming them into a new gig they might not be suited for or leaving them empty-handed.
Biden, as part of his sweeping climate change executive order on Jan. 27, created a new interagency working group focused on “coal and power plant communities and economic revitalization.” That working group, co-led by Biden’s national climate adviser Gina McCarthy and top economic policy adviser Brian Deese, is slated to issue a report with policy recommendations within 60 days.
“We’re never going to forget the men and women who dug the coal and built the nation,” Biden said in remarks before signing the order. “We’re going to do right by them and make sure they have opportunities to keep building the nation and their own communities and getting paid well for it.”
Anderson said his union and others in labor will be watching the working group closely. The executive order directs the working group to consult with labor unions, environmental justice groups, and state, local, and tribal officials.
Thus, the group’s first test is what opportunities it provides labor unions to offer a perspective and what level of involvement unions have in developing the 60-day report, Anderson said.
The working group’s second test will be how well it connects any resources it is promising, such as funding or job training, directly to the regions and workforces affected by plant closures, he added.
The Biden administration can only do so much with existing funding and resources, however. Anderson said even programs at the Appalachian Regional Commission, which is geared toward economic development, aren’t “targeted directly at coping energy transition, particularly down at the worker level.”
Ultimately, Congress will have to create and fund new programs to support fossil fuel workers and regions directly, as Anderson said other countries such as Germany and Canada have successfully done.
Anderson added that the utility union, along with other labor and environmental partners, have been working on detailed policy recommendations for Biden’s team and Congress that they plan to release in the coming weeks.
Despite Biden’s commitments, however, some of his staff, particularly special climate envoy John Kerry, have come under scrutiny for comments they’ve made suggesting fossil fuel workers can easily transition to green jobs.
“The same people can do those jobs, but the choice of doing the solar power one now is a better choice,” Kerry said during a White House briefing in January. “What President Biden wants to do is make sure those folks have better choices, that they have alternatives.”
Anderson, though, said he doesn’t fault Kerry or other Biden staff for their comments, saying that it is in the early days and that they’re “forced to talk in broad terms.”
“I don’t infer ill intent there,” he said, adding that it is too early to pass judgment on the Biden team’s approach. “They are taking on an enormously difficult problem, and it will require an enormous amount of work by a lot of people to really get down into the details and sort it all out.”
Natural Gas Companies Have Their Own Plans To Go Low-Carbon
February 21, 20217:00 AM ET
A lower-carbon natural gas flame burns on a stovetop at a NW Natural testing facility.Cassandra Profita/Oregon Public Broadcasting
Darren Arnold lights the burners on a natural gas stove at a testing facility near Portland, Ore. He’s using a new, lower-carbon gas mixture for NW Natural, a gas utility that serves 770,000 customers across the region.
“For a cooktop burner, we’re looking for a nice blue flame, nice little peaks on the tips of the flame,” he says. “So everything looks really good. We’ll also check the oven.”
Though it’s burning a different fuel mixture, it still works like a regular gas stove. That’s a key part of his company’s plan to lower its carbon output, with an eventual goal of being a carbon-neutral gas system by 2050.
Fossil fuel companies face an existential threat as more governments and businesses tackle climate change and vow to zero-out carbon emissions. President Biden has a plan to do that in the U.S., and some gas companies are recognizing they need a survival plan for the future.
Dozens of cities have moved to restrict or ban natural gas in new buildings and use renewable electricity for heating and cooking instead. But gas companies, which have launched expensive public-relations campaigns in response, say that’s not the only way to decarbonize.
Kim Heiting, senior vice president of operations for NW Natural, says her company’s pipelines — a vast network of them — don’t have to deliver fossil fuels.
“Let’s use them differently,” she says. “Let’s think about the gas grid as we think about the electric grid and just change what’s going through those pipes.”
Heiting says NW Natural could continue fueling home furnaces, appliances and industrial plants with a carbon-neutral mixture of renewable gas that would come from a variety of sources.
First, they’d capture the methane or biogas that’s being emitted from rotting food, cow manure, wastewater and sewage treatment plants. They’d clean it and put the resulting biomethane, or renewable natural gas, into the company’s pipelines.
Heiting says burning that methane is a way of reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that are currently contributing to climate change. Methane released from dairy farms, for example, has far more global warming potential than the carbon dioxide released when that methane is burned.
“Those gases can now be captured, cleaned up and used interchangeably with conventional natural gas,” Heiting says, “allowing them to flow through the pipeline system and providing a very similar climate benefit to wind and solar.”
The supply of waste methane is limited, though. Even gas industry research has found there isn’t enough renewable natural gas supply to replace all the natural gas we’re using now. So the company would then mix that lower-carbon gas with hydrogen gas, which has no carbon emissions when it’s burned.
Think about the natural gas distribution and storage system as a massive battery for wind and solar energy.
Kim Heiting, NW Natural utility company
Heiting says her company could even make its own hydrogen gas. NW Natural is talking with an electric utility in Oregon about building a production plant that would use renewable electricity to make hydrogen gas by splitting the hydrogen from the oxygen in water.
“Think about the natural gas distribution and storage system as a massive battery for wind and solar energy,” Heiting says. “Those are the kinds of tools we’re going to need if we’re truly going to achieve deep decarbonization economy-wide.”
Heiting says her company would likely use a combination of hydrogen from various sources, including low-carbon “blue” hydrogen and carbon-free “green” hydrogen which is made using renewable electricity from wind, solar and hydropower. And she’s hoping the Biden administration will put in new incentives to help cover the costs.
“This is not going to happen without policy support,” she says. “We need production tax credits for renewable natural gas and hydrogen just like we put in place for wind and solar.”
“The rest of the world is kind of already on this,” says Evan Ramsey, a renewable energy systems specialist with the nonprofit Bonneville Environmental Foundation. “In the U.S., we’re a little bit behind.”
Ramsey has helped utilities and major companies like Intel and Walmart switch to cleaner energy, and he says making hydrogen would be a great way to use large amounts of excess wind, solar and hydropower that can be difficult to store as electricity.
That’s one of the goals of Europe’s plan to invest billions in renewable hydrogen production as part of its path to net-zero carbon emissions.Enlarge this image
Darren Arnold of NW Natural tests a natural gas stove to see how well it works when it’s burning a lower carbon gas mixture.Cassandra Profita/Oregon Public Broadcasting
Ramsey says hydrogen could be a viable option for decarbonizing shipping and aviation fuel as well as energy-intensive industries such as steel production. Meanwhile, countries around the world have already launched pilot projects to test hydrogen blends in the gas pipes serving homes and businesses — just as NW Natural aims to do.
“Hydrogen is pretty well suited to solve a lot of problems at once and really be this unifier between renewable energy and our society’s energy needs,” Ramsey says. “This is a big opportunity for oil and gas companies, but also for electric utilities and renewable developers.”
But Sasan Saadat, research and policy analyst with the environmental group Earthjustice, says renewable gas from waste methane and hydrogen simply can’t replace all the natural gas we’re using today.
His group analyzed gas industry data and found only enough waste methane potential to cover 13% of current natural gas use in the U.S.
“You don’t even have enough of this gas to make more than a dent in overall gas demand,” he says. “So, it’s sort of a dead end solution.”
Saadat argues a lot of the waste methane used to make renewable natural gas isn’t “renewable” in the same way as wind and solar power.
“A lot of it comes from poor management of resources and poor management of waste,” he says. “You know, the sun has to shine and the wind has to blow, but we don’t have to raise animals on factory farms that create these lagoons of manure that generate this amount of methane.”
In his view, that means the amount of renewable natural gas that’s genuinely sustainable is even smaller than the industry estimates. And there’s a limit to how much hydrogen you can use in metal pipes without causing damage, Saadat says. Research suggests pipes and appliances would need to be replaced to handle a gas blend of more than about 20% hydrogen.
Saadat says the bottom line is we’ll have to use way less gas to completely wipe out carbon emissions. His group is pushing cities to outright ban natural gas hookups in new buildings, and flagging the health risks of burning gas indoors to strengthen the case for switching to electricity.
Gas companies agree that gas use will have to decline as the world shifts to completely zero out carbon emissions. NW Natural’s plan includes more energy efficiency, and it also offers customers carbon offsets for a small fee. By switching to renewable gas, the company hopes to have a place in a net-zero future — even if it is a smaller one.
Dark money group admits racketeering in Ohio bribery case
By JULIE CARR SMYTH and MARK GILLISPIEFebruary 19, 2021
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A political dark money group that authorities say was used as part of a $60 million bribery scheme to pass nuclear bailout legislation in Ohio pleaded guilty to a federal racketeering charge on Friday.
Generation Now Inc. also agreed in federal court in Cincinnati to forfeit $1.5 million from two bank accounts.
Jeffrey Longstreth, a co-defendant in the case who previously pleaded guilty to racketeering for his involvement in the scheme, represented Generation Now during Friday’s hearing.
U.S. District Judge Timothy Black delayed a pre-sentence investigation and sentencing until after cases for all of the defendants are resolved.
Federal investigators say former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, Longstreth and three others used the nonprofit Generation Now as a conduit for $60 million secretly provided by Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. The money was allegedly used to secure Householder’s power, elect allied lawmakers and gain legislative approval for $1 billion bailout of two nuclear power plants operated by a FirstEnergy subsidiary.
The five men were indicted in July on racketeering charges. Householder has pleaded not guilty and awaits trial. He was stripped of his leadership post but remains a state representative, rankling elected officials from his heavily Republican district who have pushed for his removal.
Also Friday, the vacancy created when a former regulator touched by the scandal resigned inched closer to being filled.
The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio Nominating Council sent the names of four new finalists for the vacancy created by then-PUCO Chair Sam Randazzo’s resignation in November to Republican Gov. Mike DeWine.
— Jenifer French, an attorney who lost a reelection bid for Franklin County Common Pleas Court in November
— Virginia King, an assistant general counsel at Findlay-based Marathon Petroleum Corp. focused on the company’s sustainability efforts
— Daniel Shields, who spent 30 years at the PUCO, including as federal energy advocate, and the past seven years at the Office of Consumer’s Counsel
— Melissa Shilling, a 17-year member of the state’s Environmental Review Appeals Commission
In a rare move, DeWine rejected the first list he was sent on Jan. 27, telling the panel in a letter that, while the candidates were all “appropriate,” he preferred “to consider additional capable candidates” before making his decision. The move drew swift criticism from consumer advocates, who viewed at least one of the candidates as highly qualified.
The second list of semifinalists contained no duplicate names from the first list DeWine rejected.
Randazzo has not been charged in the bribery investigation. His resignation came days after his Columbus townhome was searched by the FBI and FirstEnergy revealed that former executives had paid $4 million to the firm of an Ohio official meeting Randazzo’s description to terminate a purported consulting contract. The payment was made just before DeWine appointed Randazzo as PUCO chair.
Gillispie reported from Cleveland.