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Party Politics Polarizes Jobs and Energy Debate

With jobs set to be a key vote-winning point in the November US presidential election, the debate is being framed along the polarized lines of whether renewable energy or a revival of gas and oil production at home will create more jobs.

At the Southwestern Energy Co., natural gas production site, water and sand are mixed and then pumped through the tubes at pressures over 6,600 psi into the well during fracture stimulation, at the Marcellus Shale formation in Camptown, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Julia Schmalz | Bloomberg | Getty Images
At the Southwestern Energy Co., natural gas production site, water and sand are mixed and then pumped through the tubes at pressures over 6,600 psi into the well during fracture stimulation, at the Marcellus Shale formation in Camptown, Pennsylvania, U.S.

The truth is that both are engines for economic growth and job creation and they are working in tandem to increase America’s energy independence.

The mainstream media has a knee-jerk tendency to view energy jobs from a polarized perspective, focusing singularly on either job creation potential in the renewable energy sector or in the fossil fuels sector. This issue needs to be reframed for public consumption, with the understanding that it is the drive for energy independence that is paramount to new job creation in both sectors.

At a time when America's energy reality is in a state of metamorphosis, both renewable energy and increased efforts towards domestic production of oil and gas are important. While renewable energy will in the long term become the dominant sector, this transformation must necessarily be a gradual one.

The result of this transition period is a much-needed boom in job creation in both sectors. So how does this work in terms of vote-buying on the political scene?

Energy, Jobs Politics

Supporters of the Republican campaign are want to convince the public that job creation is stronger in the domestic oil and gas sector, while the Obama administration focuses on jobs created in the renewable energy sector.

This breaks the debate down into terms that the public can easily digest, but it is a red herring. As the incumbent, Obama could capitalize on this debate by more strongly pointing out what should be obvious: the drive for energy independence creates jobs across the energy sector, befriending both fossil and renewable proponents.

With that in mind, let’s look at the prospects for energy jobs at a time when the national unemployment rate is about 8.2 percent and millions of Americans remain without jobs — most with dwindling if not completely exhausted unemployment benefits.

From a global perspective, the International Renewable Energy Agency, Irena, said the off-grid electricity industry alone is poised to create 4 million jobs in accordance with the United Nation’s goal of providing sustainable energy for all by 2030.

Currently, renewable energy companies worldwide employ an estimated 5 million people.

Germany alone forecasts it will employ over half a million people in the renewable energy sector by 2030; currently some 380,000 people work in the sector. Worldwide, between 2007 and 2011, the number of jobs in the renewable energy sector doubled.

According to the UN, renewables are poised to have a better job-creation rate than oil and gas sector in the longer term.

Solar, Shale-Gas Jobs

A worker installs solar panels at the Lieberose Solar Park in Lieberose, Germany.
Getty Images
A worker installs solar panels at the Lieberose Solar Park in Lieberose, Germany.

In the U.S., the solar industry in particular has seen a massive job boom. According to the National Solar Jobs Census 2011, employment growth in the solar sector was nearly 10 times higher than the average national rate last year, translating into over 100,000 solar jobs for Americans and a forecasted increase of 24 percent for 2012.

And these figures are said to reflect the bare minimum. In the State of California, for instance, despite two major recessions, job creation in the renewable energy sector has outpaced job growth in any other sector, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, EDF.

But that’s the longer term. In the immediate term, domestic production of oil and natural gas in the U.S. is also contributing to a job boom. The “shale revolution” which has seen a massive increase in domestic production of oil and natural gas has created thousands of jobs for Americans and stands to create thousands more.

While the Obama administration has in fact pointed out that shale gas development succeeded in creating some 600,000 new jobs in 2010 alone, this is usually overshadowed by the administration’s stronger focus on the renewable energy sector, as well as the media’s penchant for willfully polarizing the jobs issue.

On the crude oil front, the U.S. experienced a larger increase in oil production than any country outside of OPEC in 2011, according to the "New York Times." This necessarily translates into job creation.

The bottom line is that the future of job creation should be viewed from an “energy independence” perspective, not from the front lines of the renewable vs. fossil showdown.

While there are necessarily elements of a showdown, the objective reality is that both must play a significant role in this energy transition period, and both will contribute to much-needed job creation in the immediate future.

It is important that as Americans prepare to head to the polls they do not feel their vote must be cast along these frontlines. Despite the rhetoric designed for vulnerable public consumption, both camps recognize the nuances of a transition to energy independence, and both appreciate the roles played by renewable energy and domestic oil and gas production.

—This story originally appeared on Oilprice.com.

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