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Cherrypicking the Evidence in the Energy Jobs Debate

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In the debate over energy, the effect of policy on jobs depends on your source. (Photograph by USDA/Flickr)

Can jobs be more than a talking point in the debate over energy?

It’s not just a rhetorical question. It’s not a surprise that jobs and the economy consistently show up as the number-one issue for voters this election year. It’s also no surprise that the both sides of the energy debate use estimates of how energy policy affects jobs to make their larger points.

The Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University looked at some of these job estimates in a recent report and concluded they varied widely depending on the economic model and data used. In addition, the institute said the limitations of these estimates are “inconsistently reported and too often ignored.” The differences are huge, ranging from losing more than a million jobs to gaining nearly that many.

“In an advocacy context, job impact analyses can tell very different stories, often depending on the narrator,” the report said. The institute said there are estimates predicting everything from a 1.3 million job loss to a 723,000 job gain from the imposition of renewable energy standards, depending on the model. On EPA power plant regulations, sci-fi fans can choose from two different “mirror universes”: the rules would create or destroy 1.4 million jobs, depending on whether you believe the industry group American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity or the Political Economy Research Institute.

Different models are going to produce different results, and different advocacy groups and candidates are going to cherrypick the results to make their points. That’s just what happens in the real world, and why it’s important to provide some context and balance.

But there are other things that will happen in the real world that we can’t ignore when it comes to jobs and energy policy.

The energy business is changing. We’re undergoing a historic shift in how we get and deliver energy. The combination of rapidly rising global demand and the threat of irreversible climate change are combining to force change in our fossil-fuel based world. Even the staid International Energy Agency says the world’s energy system is “unsustainable” as it exists today.

Work in general, and energy work in particular, is going to change. Massively. The world of work is also shifting under our feet. The Great Recession destroyed more than 8 million American jobs, and getting them back would be challenge enough. But at the same time, technology and globalization are enabling more jobs to be done elsewhere, or maybe to not be done by humans at all. These trends will affect energy jobs just like they affect jobs in other fields That means some of those lost jobs aren’t coming back, and new ones need to be found.

The economy itself is never static. There’s always “churn” as we create and destroy jobs all the time. If the economy is working well, you’re always creating more jobs than you destroy. But the bigger the social change that’s going on, the bigger the churn – and the more disruption there’s going to be. A massive shift in energy will produce job shifts. There’s no way around it.

The fundamental question is how we help people cope with change. If you look at the broad economic statistics over time, it’s easy to take comfort in the fact that jobs lost in one field are usually made up somewhere else. If you’ve lost your job or trying to hang onto the one you have, that’s another story.

For example, the Occupational Outlook Handbook, the federal government’s official best estimate of job prospects, projects employment in utilities will fall 11 percent by 2018 and by 14 percent in mining, quarrying and oil and gas extraction – in both cases at least partly because of greater automation. By contrast, employment in professional, scientific and technical services is supposed to grow by 34 percent, with 2.7 million new jobs. But how many people in mining or utilities are ready to move over to manage computer networks?

Sure, most people adapt and find new jobs, eventually. But people who lose a job often take years to regain lost economic ground. And the longer people are unemployed, the harder it is to get back into the workforce.

Americans don’t want to hear that “it’ll all work out.” They want to know how it will work out, and they want to know that the country’s leaders in government and business are thinking about how to manage the transition and avoid its most painful aspects.

Unless people understand how the new energy future will affect them and their communities and unless they are confident that their concerns and fears are taken seriously, they’re not going to buy into it. What’s more, manipulating their hopes and fears for short-term political advantage will just feed the cynicism and gridlock that keeps us from doing what needs to be done.