Thursday, September 08, 2011

Turning to Energy for Jobs

Yesterday's Energy Jobs Summit at the US Capitol, hosted by The Hill and API, focused on the potential of the energy sector to add large numbers of new jobs to help alleviate the national jobs crisis that President Obama will discuss in tonight's speech. The figures presented by API and others were impressive, with the oil and gas sector alone capable of creating over a million jobs if provided increased access to US resources. Panelists also discussed "green jobs", including those from energy efficiency projects. Yet I was struck by the inherent tension between today's job-creation imperative and our long-term need for an energy sector that is as productive and cost-effective as possible, in order to support economic growth and reemployment in the roughly 92% of the economy beyond energy. That makes highly productive private-sector energy jobs requiring little or no public investment especially valuable.

In a new study released at the summit, Wood Mackenzie estimates that the US oil and gas industry could increase its employment by 1.4 million by 2030, with a million of those jobs attainable by 2018--more than half in the next two years--under new policies that would lift the current bans on offshore drilling outside the established areas of the Gulf of Mexico and on shale drilling in New York, speed up permit issuance in the Gulf, open up new onshore acreage for leasing, and approve the Keystone XL pipeline. In the process, domestic production of oil and gas liquids could eventually nearly double, while natural gas output would grow by over 60%. Even better, from a deficit-and-debt reduction perspective, this effort would require no new government expenditures and stands to contribute a cumulative $800 billion in additional federal and state royalties and tax receipts.

The potential jobs impact is extraordinary, when you think about it. Oil and gas is an incredibly capital-intensive industry with very high worker productivity--one reason that salaries in the industry tend to be much higher than average. An industry like that is hardly the first place one might think to look when seeking massive job growth. The fact that such growth is even possible is both a validation of the tremendous untapped resource potential we still possess, and an indictment of decades of bipartisan energy policy mismanagement that has preferentially outsourced US energy production, rather than exploiting our own resources.

What about the contribution of "green jobs"? The growth of cleantech--renewable energy and energy efficiency--can certainly contribute to US job growth, yet we should understand clearly that such jobs won't spring forth spontaneously from the private sector without substantial continued government incentives and subsidies. Nor are those a guarantee of success. The US wind industry installed just 2,151 MW of new capacity in the first half of 2011. While that was considerably better than last year's pace of 1,250 MW, it's still 47% below installations in the first half of 2009, despite last December's against-the-odds extension of the Treasury renewable energy grants, which paid out $2.2 billion to wind projects this year. And the recent solar bankruptcies and the aggressive offshoring by solar manufacturers fighting to stay competitive with Asian suppliers also demonstrate that green jobs, other than those in installation and construction, are just as vulnerable to global competition as in any other US manufacturing industry.

Conventional energy jobs aren't immune from competition, either. I was startled to read yesterday that regional refiner Sunoco plans to exit the refining business after more than 100 years. Its two Philadelphia-area refineries will either be sold or shut down by mid-2012, with 1,500 jobs at stake. Prospects for a quick sale of these facilities look poor, because these plants are among the most exposed to global oil prices that have been running more than $20 per barrel higher than for crudes produced in Canada and the US mid-continent. Idling these plants would take a big bite out of east coast gasoline supplies and inevitably lead to both higher product imports and higher gasoline prices in the northeast and mid-Atlantic regions. As someone pointed out at yesterday's session, it's a sad commentary that Sunoco can make more money selling sodas and snacks at its retail facilities than it can refining crude oil.

That dynamic makes the production-related jobs in the Wood Mac study even more attractive: Despite being tied to a depleting resource, US oil & gas exploration and production enjoys a greater sustainable competitive advantage in the global marketplace than either refining or cleantech manufacturing, at least when it has sufficient access to domestic resources.

However, these opportunities also pose a test of our seriousness on the jobs issue. Opening up the Virginia and California coastlines, for starters, along with the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to exploration raises a host of NIMBY and environmental concerns. I don't want to trivialize them, but I would suggest that the time when we could afford such sensibilities may have passed, heralded by our continued descent in the rankings of national global competitiveness and the rapid growth of our indebtedness. Creating a number of "green jobs" comparable to Wood Mac's estimate of 1.4 million from oil and gas would require the expenditure of tens to hundreds of billions of dollars the federal government doesn't have, and that the current Congress seems unlikely to be willing to appropriate. It would also risk embedding expensive energy at the core of the US economy, hobbling our non-energy economy, where most Americans are employed.

Yesterday's energy jobs summit was held in the new Capitol Visitor Center, which I hadn't seen before. It's a gorgeous facility and a suitable addition to the paramount edifice of our democracy. However, I was also struck by the contrast it provided with the meeting's subject matter. Recall that the Visitor's Center ended up costing over $600 million, well over twice its original plan. I hope that when the President presents his jobs program tonight, it will be grounded in the crucial distinction between that kind of government-funded, "shovel-ready" project that might put some of our fellow citizens back to work for a few years and an energy-and-jobs resurgence funded entirely by companies and their investors.

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