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Coal's no way to make the job market hop

Guest Opinion: We'd get more jobs out of clean energy investment than coal ports.
Coal terminals claim constitutional protections.

Coal terminals claim constitutional protections. Courtesy of Paul K. Anderson/Chuckanut Conservancy

If Peabody Energy, SSA Marine and Goldman Sachs really want to stimulate Washington jobs, as they claim, they can find much better ways to do so than build a sprawling $665 million coal terminal northwest of Bellingham. They could use the money instead to fund energy-efficiency and renewable-energy projects. Per dollar invested, efficiency and renewables generate many more jobs than fossil fuels.

Modern coal terminals are highly mechanized facilities, with towering, ten-story cranes pivoting massive arms above coal storage piles 60 feet high. At the ends of these arms, huge rotary shovels bigger than a house dig up the dusty coal and deposit it onto conveyor belts that snake away to bulk carriers three to four football fields long. Few workers are needed to operate these gargantuan “stacker/reclaimers.”

As estimated in official project documents, the Gateway Pacific Terminal would support only 257 steady jobs, including office workers, at full build-out. That’s just one new job for every $2.6 million invested, assuming the terminal can indeed be built for its advertised price. If you include “induced jobs” that may be added in maritime and railroad industries, the total increases to 430. But extra expenditures would occur in these areas, say for necessary railroad upgrades, so figure about one new job created per $2 million spent.

According to data compiled by the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (which, full disclosure, one of us directs) at the University of California, Berkeley, investing the same $665 million in energy efficiency or renewables would create twice as many jobs at minimum. In solar manufacturing, for example, figure several hundred more jobs than at the coal terminal. For solar-installation and energy-efficiency companies, add at least another thousand.

SolarCity, for example, is a California-based company developing solar installations throughout western states for customers large and small, including Google, Intel and Wal-Mart. With about $200 million in venture financing plus nearly another $1.6 billion in project-specific investments, the company has added more than 2,000 employees since 2006 — over one new job per million dollars — and induced many more jobs among its subcontractors.

The savings in energy costs that steadily accrue after these clean-energy projects are completed can be recycled through organizations to create even more jobs, setting up a multiplier effect that stimulates greater prosperity. Such investments also lessen dependence on fickle foreign sources of fossil fuels, whose costs can skyrocket if supply lines are threatened.

Then, too, these are jobs in construction, maintenance, building supplies and finance that will be difficult, if not impossible, to ship overseas. The wages and salaries earned will largely be spent in local communities, enhancing local economies.

The actual, unspoken, reason coal-terminal advocates are touting this ill-considered project despite growing public opposition is the profits, not jobs, it will create. By selling subsidized US coal — our coal — to Asia at $100 a ton that costs only $10 a ton to strip mine in Wyoming, lucrative profits can be made all along the global supply chain. And the electrical power generated using this coal will help Asian firms continue undercutting U.S. manufacturers, causing further job losses here at home.

The majority of terminal profits would leave Washington and flow to Wall Street, not Main Street. The pittance paid locally in taxes — less than 34 cents a ton, according to official estimates — will be negligible compared to the public health and environmental impacts Washington citizens and ecosystems will be forced to bear.

The much-ballyhooed coal-terminal jobs are a fool’s bargain that should be rejected on economic grounds alone, never mind the obvious impacts. It’s time we stopped feeding such fossil dinosaurs and started investing seriously in U.S. innovators, workers and companies that can help realize our low-carbon future.

Daniel M. Kammen is Professor of Energy at the University of California, Berkeley, where he founded and directs the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Jan 14, 1:04 p.m. Inappropriate

The authors are not being aggressive enough. It is true that building solar panels creates more job per dollar and per unit of energy than coal. However, generating energy by putting people on bicycle generators creates even more jobs. As we at the Washington Policy Center have pointed out (http://www.washingtonpolicy.org/blog/post/how-creating-green-jobs-banning-tractors-create-farm-jobs) you can create 100 times as many jobs as from solar by generating this form of renewable energy. And think of the benefits in reducing obesity!

Sure, these would be hard, low-paying jobs (note the authors don't address the salaries for solar-energy jobs), but if we are just trying to create MORE jobs, then bike energy is the way to go. Similarly, we could create more farm jobs by banning tractors.

Sadly, solar subsidies are actually bad for the environment. For example, the Washington State solar subsidies alone cost about $3,900 per ton of carbon reduced. Compare that to British Columbia, where the price of a ton of CO2 is $30, solar subsidies spend $100 to get $1 worth of carbon emissions reductions. Wasting $99 out of $100 is not environmentally responsible.

Solar subsidies are bad for the environment and create bad jobs, but they do create a lot of them!

Posted Mon, Jan 14, 3:49 p.m. Inappropriate

The China Coal Ports benefit the United States in no way. The writer of this article are correct in their points. It is interesting that a Washington Policy Center shill could not take the article writers' contentions head-on, and instead is reduced to a feeble attempt at meaningless sarcasm. Lame.

Hey Washington Policy Center, grow some and address the contentions.

The shill won't. The WPC shill knows the writers are correct. I did not know that the WPC was so dishonest. Now, I do. The shill would have been better not commenting. The shill will not attempt to address the contentions; because the shill knows the contentions are correct.

The Washington Policy Center turns out to be nothing but a dishonorable group, of dishonest individuals.

jhande

Posted Mon, Jan 14, 4:09 p.m. Inappropriate

jhande, you have a strange response. My point, in fact, is that the authors are correct. My second sentence (SECOND!) says " building solar panels creates more jobs per dollar and per unit of energy than coal."

You are emotional that I have also mentioned some additional, inconvenient facts. The authors are not wrong, they are just selective in their facts, ignoring the costs of their position and advocating solar energy which is tremendously wasteful.

Further, nowhere do I defend coal or the coal trains. Indeed our consistent position on climate change has been that externalities of fossil fuels should be priced in.

Perhaps now you can address my points rather than engaging in meaningless name calling. Sadly, emotion has been the dominant force in our state's environmental policy, which is why Washington has one of the worst records for reducing carbon emissions over the past decade (worse even than Texas). Until that approach changes, we will continue to fail.

Posted Mon, Jan 14, 10:56 p.m. Inappropriate

Now you are being disingenuous. Read your own post. You do not address the writers contentions.

jhande

Posted Tue, Jan 15, 9:58 a.m. Inappropriate

I am no great fan of subsidies, whether for renewables or fossil fuels. In fact, it's the tremendous subsidy for Power River Basin coal that makes its export so lucrative to Wall Streeters. If that coal were properly priced, say at $40 to $50 a ton like most other US coal, there would be much less interest (if any) in exporting it, given the costs of shipping it by rail 1300 miles to the Pacific Coast and by bulk carrier some 5000 miles to Asia. That subsidy was originally intended to make coal-generated electricity cheap in the United States, not to help fuel Asian industries to continue taking away US manufacturing jobs.

What we really need is a TAX on coal exports, something like the $10 per ton tax suggested by Congressman Jim McDermott in a recent bill, with the proceeds to go to mitigations of all the external costs of shipping the stuff. But his bill has little chance of passage in the arch-conservative House. Just say the word "tax" in that body and see how long your influence lasts.

mriordan

Posted Thu, Jan 24, 11:24 p.m. Inappropriate

This article has sort of a weird angle... as if the "dollars per job" are public dollars, but they're not.
These entities are conducting business as usual in their respective industries... logistics and transportation, stevedoring, and in the case of Peabody Energy, selling the commodity they produce. (And in the case of Goldman Sach's, investing on behalf of their clients in one of the most successful stevedoring companies in the world, happily headquartered right here in Seattle.)

It's not like if you own a donut shop and suddenly one day you say, "gee, I could do more x with each dollar if I train horses".

In the course of their conducting their business, they're going to need to hire many people to build it and about 1200 people permanently to run it. (Don't compare it to any existing terminals. This will be the most impressive and ecologically advanced dry goods commodity terminal ever built, and most of its largeness is due to the natural buffer surrounding it, again to be as ecologically friendly as possible.)
You can find detailed information about what this terminal will look like at http://gatewaypacificterminal.com/resources/

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