Working for a Clean Future - or Perpetuating a Dirty Past?

The City of Oakland should not accept a coal shipping terminal

The controversy continues over efforts to either facilitate coal exports through San Francisco Bay or block them entirely.

Two bills have emerged from legislative efforts by Senator Loni Hancock (D-Oakland) to block coal shipments through Oakland’s proposed bulk shipping terminal. The first, SB 1279, would restrict funding for new bulk coal terminal projects, in essence severing funding for these types of projects after January 2017. The second, SB 1277, would require an additional level of environmental review for coal shipments through the Oakland terminal.

Meanwhile, proponents of coal continue to foster the notion of coal as a job engine for Oakland, while they maneuver to shift public funds to support the project.

Coal jobs have limited growth prospects

While some continue to suggest coal exports can provide good, stable jobs to the community, this stands in stark relief to the widely recognized collapse of the coal industry, including the recent bankruptcy of Peabody Energy, the world’s largest coal company. The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that coal mining jobs are in decline, with a projected net decrease of 2 percent in the overall workforce through 2024, and that tank car, truck and ship loading jobs (such as those at a bulk terminal) are showing a slower than average growth pattern of 2 to 4 percent, not to mention a $36,660 annual median wage.

As such, it is difficult to see the logic of counting on job growth from a failing sector with low wage prospects, particularly one with environmental impacts so completely at odds with California policy. Those policies include movement away from investments in coal and other fossil fuels extraction and use, and growing reliance on renewable fuels.

The clean energy technology future

By contrast, investments in clean energy technologies are an effective way to create long-term job opportunities and training to build pools of skilled workers who can contribute to a growing industry.

Consider that California’s pioneering spirit is driving record growth in the solar industry, adding more than 20,000 new employees in 2015, for a total of 75,000 jobs. While nationally, the energy storage market grew 243 percent in 2015 — the largest year on record. And, electric vehicle (EV) companies, such as Faraday Future, seek an expansion of California’s automobile manufacturing capabilities, which is fundamentally consistent with the state’s 2013 and 2016 Zero-Emission Vehicle Action Plans. Moreover, Faraday Future most recently was granted permission to test self-driving vehicles — another area recognized for major growth opportunity.

Furthermore, California’s policy drivers will only continue to motivate the demand for innovation across the renewable energy, distributed generation, energy efficiency and EV sectors. All of these influences are pushing forward industry and workforce demand in a clean energy future and some of the greatest opportunity to capitalize on new job opportunities exists in training members of diverse communities with high unemployment, something we should devote greater public resources to further. 

Oakland’s next steps

The Oakland coal terminal discussion is an opportunity to ask if we, as Californians and a nation, are going to work for a clean future or perpetuate a dirty past. Clearly, the negative environmental and climate change impacts of coal, coupled with greatly reduced demand, has the industry in permanent decline. Depending on future coal shipments through Oakland makes for fundamentally bad workforce policy. 

The Oakland City Council will present a coal ordinance on June 24. Following, on June 27, the council plans to vote on whether to stop the coal project or move forward with the developer's plans. In Sacramento, the Senate has successfully passed SB 1279 and SB 1277, and both await committee presentation in the Assembly, also on June 27.

The choice is clear. A backwards scramble to prop up a failing coal industry is an act of futility. Investing in a sustainable workforce ready for the challenges and opportunities of a clean energy future will pay dividends for the community and our environment for many years to come.