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A recent analysis by San Diego groups all jobs in the energy sector under a single category, the Escondido Creek Conservancy released a pair of California kingsnakes back into the wild and more in our biweekly roundup of environmental news.
In my quest to understand the labor union challenge that a ban on natural gas faces in San Diego, I came across an interesting analysis. It shows how the city’s first Climate Action Plan — the thing that’s supposed to help San Diego cut half our greenhouse gas emissions by 2035 — affected different kinds of jobs.
Recall that while Climate Action Plan 1.0 demands the city run on 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035, it doesn’t account for natural gas used to heat homes, power ovens or water heaters. The fossil fuel makes up 20 percent of the city’s emissions, according to the most recently available data.
But when cities or states pass policies — like a ban on natural gas and mandating buildings run on electricity — it forces shifts and reshuffling among local economies. If you ban natural gas in San Diego and require more electric hook-ups in buildings, well, that probably means more jobs wiring homes and fewer jobs laying pipe.
How many jobs are there in natural gas versus electricity now? I have no idea.
That’s because San Diego’s jobs analysis, or at least the summary that’s provided in the Climate Action Plan’s 2020 annual report, groups all jobs in energy under one category.
Natural gas distribution or pipeline transportation of natural gas are grouped under “clean and renewable energy,” the same category as solar electric power generation, storage battery manufacturing and wind electric power generation.
(Side note: Clean energy is a relatively subjective term. While natural gas burns cleaner than coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel which has no real future in California anyway, it’s mostly made of methane, a potent type of greenhouse gas that is extra good at trapping radiation close to the Earth’s surface thereby heating-up the planet at an uncomfortable rate. It can leak from natural gas pipelines that feed the fuel to gas stoves, water heaters and air conditioners in California homes and businesses.)
So while the city’s analysis tells us jobs in “clean and renewable energy” grew 4.4 percent overall between 2010 and 2019, it doesn’t tell us where those jobs came from within that broad sector.
This is important because some union groups want policymakers to ensure workers in natural gas aren’t left behind as the state favors renewable energies more and more. If you’re going to ban gas, how many people would be rendered jobless — or at least looking for work?
Unions representing natural gas workers that I talked to aren’t denying the climate is in crisis, but they do want policymakers to slow-down electrification policies in favor of waiting for fossil fuel companies to develop so-called renewable natural gas and hydrogen energy (which is carbon-free but currently produced by using lots of natural gas). That is, unless governments develop some kind of robust suite of programs to transition gas workers to another job sector.
Carol Zabin, who directs University of California, Berkeley’s Labor Center’s Green Economy program, studied this recently on a statewide scale. She estimates that if California electrifies 95 percent of all the things buildings currently use natural gas for over the next 30 years, it would eliminate between 10,600 and 14,200 jobs in the natural gas sector. Zabin wrote that it’s hard to estimate the true impacts on natural gas jobs right now due to a “lack of clear policy signals” and research on the topic.
I tried to get more detailed data from the city or CleanTech, which helped compile the report, but I got the run-around.
Alyssa Muto, the city of San Diego’s director of sustainability and mobility, told me that her department is working on a much more detailed workforce study that will accompany Climate Action Plan 2.0 (a draft of which is due this fall). I hope there’s a clear and open explanation of the existing energy job market the public can understand.