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Union: Don’t Drop Oil and Gas Off Cliff in Energy Transition

The oil and gas industry for decades has provided Americans without a college education a high-paying and stable construction job, paving a path into the middle class.

But as governments, businesses and consumers start to shift away from fossil fuels to more environmentally sustainable energy sources, oil and gas construction workers say they are increasingly worried about being left behind in the so-called energy transition.

North America’s Building Trades Unions, a group of 14 construction unions worldwide with more than 3 million members, on Friday called on policymakers to ensure renewable energy jobs have wages, benefits, workforce training and labor standards that are comparable to oil and gas jobs.

A union-commissioned survey of more than 1,600 energy construction workers in North America found respondents say construction jobs in oil and gas have better pay and benefits, are more stable and longer lasting, and provide better career opportunities than those in renewable energy.

“We’re not climate change deniers. We’re not opposed to renewables,” NABTU President Sean McGarvey said. “But we can’t transition into careers where people take a 50 percent pay cut.”

The union’s survey comes as the energy industry faces mounting challenges posed by the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. As energy companies have slashed capital budgets used for new oil and gas projects, construction employment across Texas has fallen by 3.5 percent year over year in June, representing a loss of 26,900 jobs statewide during the last month alone, according to the Associated General Contractors of America.

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McGarvey said he’s worried about how the recent oil bust will impact his union members, half of whom work in the energy sector building pipelines, manufacturing facilities, refineries and petrochemical plants. However, the union president said he’s increasingly concerned about the societal shift to solar and wind projects, which he says offer fewer, shorter and lower paying construction jobs.

One of the nation’s largest solar farms built in Nevada employed 2,500 construction workers at its peak, while an ethane cracker plant in Pennsylvania had some 7,000 workers on the job, McGarvey said. Union members in solar report having to take a second job to make ends meet while members in oil and gas are paid a minimum of $75,000 a year, he added.

Moreover, solar parks and wind farms employ far fewer workers to maintain them, unlike oil and gas projects that require more maintenance. A single worker could maintain a large solar park while a power plant requires more than 100 workers, McGarvey said.

NABTU said it is pushing for renewable projects that receive federal and state tax credits and incentives to pay union wages. The union urged policymakers to be mindful of oil and gas workers as they push toward renewable and cleaner sources of energy.

“Look at the devastation in coal mining across Appalachia that led to the degradation of entire communities,” McGarvey said. “If you’re going to push policies that are going to change the way people earn their living, you have to put into place the protocols that enable them to have the smoothest economic transition. You can’t just drop them off the cliff.”

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