The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Biden's climate plan strives to be pro-labor. But it isn't enough for some unions.

with Paulina Firozi

Joe Biden wants energy workers to get paid higher wages and have an easier time organizing.

Yet some labor groups involved in oil, gas and coal work are apprehensive about Biden's big plans to combat climate change if he wins the White House.

The former vice president's climate plan won accolades from many corners of the labor movement, yet it is still generating concern from heavy-industry labor groups worried a rapid shift away from fossil fuels will also mean a transition away from their traditionally well-paying blue-collar jobs.

“I’ve read it,” Sean McGarvey, president of the North America's Building Trades Unions (NABTU), a federation of 14 construction unions, said of Biden's climate plan. “The devil’s always in the details. It speaks to many portions of the policy proposal to creating these middle-class family sustaining jobs, union jobs. I’m just not sure how that gets done mechanically at this point."

President Trump and his campaign are already trying to capitalize on the rift, arguing Biden is acquiescing to liberals such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (R-N.Y.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

“AOC and Bernie are in charge of energy,” Trump said in a speech last week. “I don’t think Texas is too happy about that.”

Biden's plan calls for eliminating carbon pollution from power plants within 15 years all while protecting workers.

In an appeal to his party's liberals, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee said he would require electricity utilities to get all of their energy from cleaner sources — including wind, solar, nuclear and hydroelectric — by 2035.

At the same time, Biden's clean energy standard includes rules and incentives for developers to pay prevailing wages and allow workers to unionize. 

His climate plan also called for legislation to give workers more power in disputes and to weaken state-level “right-to-work” laws allowing employees to stop paying union dues.

And the plan is notable for excluding a demand to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — a priority for many left-leaning activists but one that could alienate workers in the swing state of Pennsylvania.

All of those are aspects of the plan potentially appealing to labor groups in the energy sector.

“The traditional components of the energy sector have been heavily unionized and it, throughout the plan, makes note of that and recognizes workers right to organize,” said Josh Freed, head of the climate and energy program at the center-left think tank Third Way.

The Biden campaign notes its climate plan is supported by a broad swath of groups, including major unions representing auto and electric workers.

"Joe Biden has stood with labor throughout his entire career, and now his ambitious clean energy and infrastructure plan focuses on tackling climate change in a way that creates millions of good-paying jobs that gives workers the chance to join a union," spokesman Matt Hill wrote by email.

Yet NABTU, which represents construction workers, notes many of those building energy infrastructure see better wages and benefits in the oil and gas sector than they do in renewable projects. 

“We agree over the coming decades, we’re going to do more and more transition,” McGarvey told reporters Friday. “But we can’t transition into careers where people take a 50 percent or 75 percent pay cut.”

Given Biden's climate ambitions, a handful of energy labor groups have been sitting out the 2020 election so far.

Among the unions in McGarvey's federation are the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry.

In 2012, the pipefitters' union endorsed Barack Obama despite his blocking of a project that would have put its members to work — the Keystone XL pipeline. 

One of Trump's first acts as president was to issue permits to allow it to move forward. Biden says he will revoke those permits.

So far, the pipefitters have not endorsed anyone in the 2020 election.

“We continue to remain focused on fighting for our members day in and day out,” Mark McManus, the union's president, said in a statement in May. “We look forward to continuing our conversations with the Biden campaign around issues critical to our members and their jobs.”

The United Mine Workers of America, too, are so far staying on the sidelines in the race between Biden and Trump, despite the latter's rhetoric on saving coal jobs.

The coal miners' union finds itself stuck between a rock and a hard place — unable to back Biden, who promises a rapid transition to renewables, and unable to support Trump, whose they say has undermined workers' rights. 

“As of now we are not looking to endorse a presidential candidate,” said Phil Smith, head of communications and governmental affairs at the coal miners' union, which also declined to endorse in 2012 and 2016.

Power plays

Federal authorities charged Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder (R) in a bribery and racketeering scheme related to passage of a law bailing out nuclear power plants. 

“Mr. Householder, a veteran Republican lawmaker, pushed for passage of House Bill 6, designed to funnel about $1 billion from surcharges on consumer bills to bail two struggling nuclear power plants,” the Toledo Blade reports. “He is accused of conspiring with Generation Now between March, 2017 to March, 2020 to enact the bill and then work to kill a subsequent ballot effort that was designed to repeal it. The money flowed into Generation Now from an unidentified energy company and its affiliates, authorities allege." 

Authorities say Householder adviser Jeff Longstreth, who was also arrested, incorporated a nonprofit called Generation Now, “which the FBI contends was actually run by Mr. Householder. The money was used to help pay for Householder's campaign staff.” 

The Justice Department is challenging a legal strategy meant to get additional concessions in settlement deals with polluters. 

The tactic is often used to acquire funding for environmental improvements, and frequently benefits communities that disproportionately bear the impact of environmental contamination, the Wall Street Journal reports.

“Past agreements include funding for new water wells for Native Americans in Oklahoma and redevelopment in Black neighborhoods in Chicago affected by pollution from a paint factory,” per the report. This month, the Trump administration launched a legal challenge that “could effectively stop outside groups from pursuing these settlements. The move comes as the department moves to greatly restrict its own Environment and Natural Resources Division from making these deals on behalf of the federal government.”

While environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, point to the settlement deals as a key way to help communities impacted by pollution, the Journal adds: “Conservative groups have long opposed these supplemental deals, calling them a shakedown of energy producers, manufacturers and other companies. The groups have found support in the Justice Department, which says these settlements subvert Congress’s power and reduce penalties that should legally be paid directly to the federal government." 

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) filed a lawsuit to block the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management from permanently leading the agency. 

“The move increases pressure on Republican Sen. Steve Daines, who sits on the Senate Energy Committee reviewing Pendley’s nomination and faces Democrat Bullock in his bid for a second term in Congress,” the Missoulian reports. “Although no date has been set for the confirmation hearing, Bullock’s lawsuit is the third challenging Pendley’s acting leadership as a violation of federal law… Interior Secretary David Bernhardt named Pendley as acting director a year ago, and has reappointed him four times. President Donald Trump didn’t formally nominate him until last month.” 

Meanwhile, a group of Democratic senators that oppose Pendley want to expedite his nomination hearing. 

“The letter, spearheaded by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), urged leaders of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to examine William Perry Pendley’s nomination as soon as possible,” he Hill reports

“After nearly a year as Acting Director, Mr. Pendley’s formal nomination is long overdue, and the public deserves the opportunity to hold him accountable for his record of undermining our public lands, clean water, and jobs that rely on both,” they wrote. “ We respectfully ask that you work with Mr. Pendley to hold a hearing as soon as you receive his paperwork so his record can be vetted before the American public.”

Democratic lawmakers added numerous amendments to regulate a class of man-made chemicals known as PFAS to a defense authorization bill that passed the House. 

The House approved a $740 billion national defense authorization bill in a bipartisan 295 to 125 vote.

The legislation includes measures that would increase funding for a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study on PFAS, and would order the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the National Institute of Standards and Technology to research the impact of using PFAS in firefighting equipment, in addition to other provisions, according to Bloomberg News. 

“The House didn’t vote on a more ambitious PFAS amendment filed by Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) that would direct the Environmental Protection Agency to set a safe drinking water limit for PFAS contamination,” per the report. “The Rules Committee didn’t include that amendment in the rule it approved for consideration of the NDAA.” 


A group of big investors penned a letter warning the climate crisis could jeopardize financial markets. 

The letter from more than three dozen pension plans, fund managers and other financial institutions that combined manage almost $1 trillion in assets warned, according to the New York Times, that the “climate crisis poses a systemic threat to financial markets and the real economy, with significant disruptive consequences on asset valuations and our nation’s economic stability.” It also called on the Federal Reserve and the Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as other agencies, to “explicitly integrate climate change across your mandates.” 

“Investors worry that if regulators do not act, climate change may cause the price of some companies to fall suddenly, the effects of which may ricochet through the economy. Providing more information about that risk — for example, by requiring companies to disclose more about their greenhouse gas emissions, or which of their facilities are at risk from rising seas — could help investors make better decisions,” per the Times. 

The D.C. area hit its hottest day of the year on Monday, but pandemic-driven restrictions made it more difficult than usual to find relief. 

“Christopher Rodriguez, the District’s director of homeland security and emergency management, said anyone using the city’s cooling centers is required to wear a mask. The city is providing masks to those who don’t have one, and visitors must stay six feet apart,” Justin Wm. Moyer, Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff and Julie Zauzmer report. “Ceymone Dyce, a clinical supervisor for the D.C. Downtown Day Services Center run by nonprofit Pathways to Housing, said outreach workers are focusing on keeping clients cool and hydrated, handing out frozen bottles of water and loosefitting clothes. The center can also accommodate three clients per hour to take a shower.” 

Many indoor options for staying cool are still closed as D.C. remains in Phase 2 of its reopening plan. That includes movie theaters, museums and public libraries.