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The next labor secretary will face a big shortage of clean-energy workers

The Climate 202

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Below, we have an exclusive on a brief filed by two top Democrats in a legal challenge to the Environmental Protection Agency’s climate authority. But first:

If confirmed, Julie Su will face a big clean-energy workforce challenge

President Biden on Tuesday nominated Julie Su to be the next labor secretary after Marty Walsh announced his resignation from the role to lead the National Hockey League’s players union.

If confirmed by the Senate, Su would face a major challenge: a shortage of workers in the clean-energy industry that threatens to derail the administration’s ambitious climate agenda.

“There is definitely a labor shortage,” Chynna Hampton, equity director for Climate Jobs Illinois, told The Climate 202. “It’s really hard to get out there and find those talented folks.”

Climate Jobs Illinois, an affiliate of the Climate Jobs National Resource Center, is a coalition of labor organizations advocating for well-paying union jobs in the clean-energy sector, including wind turbine technicians, solar panel installers and nuclear plant engineers.

The group’s goals mirror those of the Democrats’ landmark climate law, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, which offers more lucrative tax incentives for clean-energy businesses that pay workers a prevailing wage and employ a certain portion of apprentices. (Apprenticeships, which help train workers to become skilled in certain trades, usually last about four years.)

But with the U.S. unemployment rate at a historic low of 3.4 percent, many construction and manufacturing companies worry they won’t be able to hire enough clean-energy workers to make batteries and build wind or solar farms. 

Wage woes

One big challenge to recruitment: While the Biden administration has promised that new green-energy jobs will be well-paying union jobs, wages in the renewables sector haven’t kept up with those in the fossil fuel industry.

  • The 2021 median annual wage for solar panel installers was $47,670, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the median annual wage for wind turbine technicians was $56,260.
  • For petroleum pump system and refinery operators, the 2021 median annual wage was $79,340, the data shows.

The rate of unionization in the renewables sector has also lagged, helping to explain the lower wages.

  • About 4 percent of solar industry workers and 6 percent of wind workers are unionized, according to the 2020 U.S. Energy and Employment Report. 
  • The percentage of unionized workers in natural gas, nuclear and coal power plants is about double that, around 10 to 12 percent.
  • Still, the solar and wind unionization rates are in line with the low national rate of unionized workers in the private sector, which is about 6 percent.

“In traditional energy sectors, say in fossil fuels, they are very highly paid jobs, where people had years in an industry where they could sustain their families and have predictability and economic security,” Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of unions, told The Climate 202.

“That isn’t the case in the renewables sector,” Shuler said. “And if this clean-energy transition is going to go well, we have to ensure that those jobs are good jobs. So we would say that there’s not a shortage of clean-energy workers as much as there’s a shortage of good, highly paid jobs.”

California dreaming

Environmental and labor advocates interviewed for this article struggled to identify specific steps that Su could take to address this shortage as labor secretary. But in general, they said the Labor Department — in coordination with the Energy Department and other relevant agencies — could look to California for inspiration.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) last year announced the High Road Training Partnerships, which create workforce development programs focused on well-paying careers in climate and other sectors, especially for workers in low-income communities.

Su, who previously served as labor secretary in California, should consider the initiative as a “model” when weighing the national need for clean-energy workforce development, said V. John White, co-founder of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies.

“Because California has gone further down this path than anybody else, I think we’re in a position to provide some good examples,” White told The Climate 202.

Jason Walsh, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of labor unions and environmental groups, agreed that the “design of that program is what we’re going to need to see more of across the country.”

“With the Inflation Reduction Act and other laws, the federal government has invested trillions of dollars in a whole bunch of stuff,” he added. “But a lot of this investment will flow into sectors where employers can’t actually find workers to make and build this stuff. And if we don’t address this, it will have serious economic and climate consequences.”

On the Hill

Exclusive: Democrats file brief defending EPA in clean cars suit

Two top congressional Democrats have filed an amicus brief defending the Environmental Protection Agency in a legal challenge to its clean car rules, according to a copy of the brief shared first with The Climate 202.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.) and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Thomas R. Carper (Del.) filed the brief Thursday evening in the case Texas v. EPA, a challenge to the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from cars.

In their lawsuit, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) and 14 other Republican attorneys general asserted that the EPA’s clean car standards violated the “major questions doctrine,” a conservative legal idea that says federal agencies need explicit authorization from Congress to decide issues of “major economic and political significance.” (The Supreme Court’s conservative majority invoked this idea in West Virginia v. EPA, a successful challenge to the EPA’s greenhouse gas rules for power plants.)

Pallone and Carper strongly rejected this notion, saying Congress explicitly granted the EPA the authority to regulate tailpipe pollution in the Clean Air Act — and it reaffirmed this authority in the Inflation Reduction Act.

“The major questions doctrine has no application where a federal agency action rests fully within express congressional authorization and follows a longstanding regulatory approach,” they wrote.

Pressure points

How a tax break meant to curb climate change could make it worse

The Biden administration has touted green hydrogen, or hydrogen made using clean energy, as a zero-carbon superfuel. But now, as tens of billions of taxpayer dollars are poised to start flowing toward the technology, advocates fear clean energy subsidies could be used to boost a fuel with a very different pollution profile, The Washington Post’s Evan Halper reports. 

Big energy firms have already deployed an intense lobbying effort to make Inflation Reduction Act funds available to companies using fossil fuels to produce hydrogen, arguing that allowing for an all-of-the-above approach at first is essential to nourishing the fragile industry. 

However, environmentalists have said that if the Treasury Department writes lax rules for manufacturing green hydrogen, the integrity of the law could be undermined and an enormous amount of unnecessary greenhouse gases would be released in the process.

Treasury officials declined to comment on when the green hydrogen tax-credit rules might be complete.

Agency alert

EPA orders testing for highly toxic dioxin at Ohio derailment site

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday ordered rail company Norfolk Southern to test the area around the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment site for dioxin after nearly a month of contamination concerns, The Post’s Scott Dance reports. 

Since the Feb. 3 crash, environmentalists and residents have sounded alarms about possible exposure to dioxin, a dangerous pollutant that is created when plastic is burned. Days after the incident, authorities intentionally vented the chemical vinyl chloride, used in PVC plastic, from a rail car to avoid an explosion.

The EPA will oversee the testing and Norfolk Southern will be responsible for “immediate cleanup if contaminants from the derailment are found at levels that jeopardize people’s health,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement.

The new testing requirement comes after EPA officials played down the risks of dioxin pollution, saying that monitoring for similar chemicals around the area suggested “low probability” of such contamination. As recently as Feb. 19, an EPA spokesperson told The Post that any dioxins produced “would have been dispersed in the atmosphere.”

Energy unveils $1.2 billion for aging nuclear plants

The Biden administration on Thursday announced that it is making $1.2 billion in aid available to help revive distressed nuclear power plants, including for the first time ones that shut down after Nov. 15, 2021, Timothy Gardner reports for Reuters. 

The funding comes as the administration hopes to leverage the carbon-free energy source to reach 100 percent clean electricity by 2035, despite about a dozen U.S. reactors closing since 2013. It marks the second round of funding to be distributed by the Energy Department from the bipartisan infrastructure law’s $6 billion Civil Nuclear Credit program. 

Among possible recipients is the Michigan-based Palisades plant, which shuttered last May after a coolant system leak and is the only eligible already-closed project. The facility’s owner, Holtec International, had applied during the first round of funding last year — when that criteria was excluded from the competition — but the Energy Department had rejected it over concerns about cost effectiveness and potential risks involving radioactive materials. 

ClearView Energy Partners, an independent research firm, said in a note to clients that the updated application guidance “represents an explicit endorsement by the Biden administration to restart a closed nuclear plant,” which has not yet occurred in the United States.

In the atmosphere


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