The energy jobs debate
This past week saw the release of the U.S. jobs report for April and its results of 160,000 new non-farm jobs, which was less than the expected 200,000. Worker pay did tick up 2.5 percent nationally, however, which may mean that employed Americans may have a bit more take-home pay to spend within the economy.
The U.S. unemployment rate remained at 5 percent (virtually half of what it was in May 2009), but if the labor market continues to soften, it’s now very likely that the Fed will not raise interest rates in June and perhaps only once in 2016 at the December meeting, after the presidential election.
Those of us who live in Oklahoma may be more acutely aware of the job market and the worry of a “soft” economy because as an energy state we’re seeing too many headlines lately about job layoffs. Yet, Oklahoma’s unemployment rate for March was slightly up to 4.4 percent, still below the national average, according to the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission.
But with many of our state’s economic eggs in the energy basket, worry is something we do, and we have learned from cycles now and in the past. The challenge remains to make sure our broader basket is growing and in more directions than one. And lucky for us, our Oklahoma energy mix is broader than most, with oil, gas, wind and solar options going forward for many decades to come.
A more difficult reality has hit other states like West Virginia and Kentucky, known for fewer energy options and mostly known for their Appalachia coal, which is experiencing historic declines due to its high sulfur content and environmental and health regulations.
The significance of that industry to those two states is why candidates for president are playing out the debate about energy jobs in the election foray. Recently candidate Hillary Clinton mentioned her commitment to developing a clean energy future and boasted about “putting a lot of coal miners out of work.” A tough comment for sure, especially for any of us empathetic to friends and colleagues out of work in today’s oil and gas patch. And so candidate Donald Trump pounced and at a large rally of 12,000 people in Charleston, West Virginia, a raucous crowd carrying large “Trump Digs Coal” signs cheered on the presumptive Republican nominee as he announced “We are going to get those mines open.”
But one must wonder how? And why? Does the candidate suggest reversing decades of Clean Air Act progress of removing toxic pollutants from the air so that coal has a growing market share again? He will need 60 senators to gut the law. And he might also need about 1,000 litigators (and 20 years) to defend the efforts from organizations like the American Lung Association, which has worked to reduce respiratory diseases by fighting for cleaner air, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has opposed coal plants’ mercury emissions because of the causal nexus with disease and health hazards for children.
But better health and environmental reasons aside, wouldn’t you think a candidate for president would be looking for ideas, policies and visions that moved the country forward, not back, and for which there may be wider public support of his or her energy positions?
For example, today there are more 150,000 American workers employed in the solar energy industry and growing. And the last time I looked, the sun shines over all 50 states.
In 2016, the American wind energy industry hit a new high, employing more than 88,000 American workers, and the DOE released a report recently suggesting the potential of 600,000 American jobs by 2050.
Now these numbers may seem large and they are certainly growing, but nothing compares to the 9.8 million jobs nationwide in the oil and gas industry, supporting about 8 percent of the entire gross domestic project. According to the American Petroleum Institute, 364,300 jobs in Oklahoma are supported by oil and gas, which may be good reason for the unease in our local economy today.
Whatever happens in our presidential politics this year, it’s my hope that America rallies to put the economy in drive, not reverse, and that our future energy development becomes the envy of the world. That’s what leadership can do. Please save the pandering for someone else.
Jim Roth, a former Oklahoma corporation commissioner, is an attorney with Phillips Murrah PC in Oklahoma City, where his practice focuses on clean, green energy for Oklahoma.