President Biden is vowing a prosperous future for union and blue-collar fossil fuel workers thanks to his clean energy agenda, but a new study suggests the promise of a smooth transition could go up in smoke.
Only a sliver — fewer than 1% — of those working in “dirty” carbon-intensive industries like fossil fuels made the jump to a green job like solar, wind or electric vehicles between 2020 and 2022, according to a research paper disseminated last week by the nonpartisan National Bureau of Economic Research.
Those who are older and lack a college degree were also significantly less likely to take a green energy job. Those aged 25-34 account for 30 times the number of transitions of dirty-to-green jobs as those who are 55-64 years old.
The study raises questions about claims from Mr. Biden that his clean energy agenda and Democrats’ tax-and-climate spending law known as the Inflation Reduction Act will usher in a wave of climate-friendly gigs for those in carbon-intensive industries.
“Why the Biden administration cares about it is they think people are going to vote for them as a result of this,” Mark Curtis, an associate professor of economics at Wake Forest University and the study’s co-author, said in an interview.
Transitioning fossil fuel workers to go green may be achievable in the long run, he said, but current data fails to buoy the White House’s hopes.
“In the short run, I’m not sure that’s justified by what we’re seeing here,” Mr. Curtis said. “There are relatively few workers who are making this dirty-to-green transition right now. The workers who are making it tend to be younger and better educated, which those workers are probably more likely to vote for Biden anyways.”
Speaking last week on the first anniversary of the IRA, Mr. Biden sought to bolster his case by citing examples like a shuttered coal plant in New Mexico making solar panels and a former West Virginian steel mill making next-generation batteries. He spoke of laborers and carpenters building solar farms, ironworkers and operating engineers building wind projects, and electricians installing solar panels and EV chargers.
“These incentives are going to help make clean energy jobs good-paying union jobs and ensure the benefits of a clean energy economy reaching communities left behind,” Mr. Biden said at the White House. “When they [got] left behind, they lost their pride. They lost a sense of who they were. They lost what was going on. To reach communities too often left behind — that’s the focus.”
But Mr. Curtis‘ study shows when analyzing massive amounts of data, Mr. Biden‘s theory — at least so far — hasn’t played out on a large scale. Green jobs were five times more likely to be filled by those with previous careers in other countries than those with domestic carbon-intensive jobs. Those other countries most often were Denmark, the U.K., Spain, Germany and India.
The vast majority of workers with green jobs also came from other industries and white-collar occupations, including sales managers, software developers and marketing managers. More than a quarter (26.7%) of green jobs were taken by first-time job-holders, and north of 20,000 workers have entered the industry from overseas.
The study, which used labor market analytics firm Lightcast to examine data from 130 million online employment profiles representing 300 million job-to-job transitions, also found that those in certain parts of the country are far less likely to switch to a clean industry job. The authors note that the less than 1% transition is despite a boost in EV-related jobs in recent years.
White House climate adviser Ali Zaidi did not respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Curtis noted that their data only went through 2022 and did not take into account the $370 billion in IRA green energy tax incentives that largely took effect starting this year.
In April, the White House extended an olive branch to coal country by highlighting new IRA tax credits they say will provide an economic boon to towns with shuttered coal plants and mines by spurring clean energy jobs.
The Department of Energy said in June that overall energy sector jobs grew by 3.8% last year to roughly 8.1 million — eclipsing the overall economy’s employment growth — with the fastest growth coming from clean energy.
The rate of transition from dirty to green jobs has grown by nearly ten-fold from 2005 to 2021. Still, such a transition remains “exceedingly rare,” the study concluded. In 2021, 0.7% of those who left dirty jobs transitioned into a green one, compared to less than 0.1% before 2005.
Researchers found that nearly 1 in 4 (22%) who leave a carbon-intensive job enter into similar jobs.
Those with carbon-intensive jobs are most likely to jump to manufacturing, including those who have a college degree (29.5%) and those who don’t (24.5%).
For non-college graduates, the next most common sectors included oil and gas (14.2%), professional, scientific and technical services (8.9%), and construction (7.6%).
For college graduates, the next most common sectors were professional, scientific and technical services (13.2%), oil and gas (7.7%) and education services (6.6%).
Mr. Curtis said the transition happening in the EV space is encouraging and that clean manufacturing could “actually be a good way to ease the sort of transition away from carbon-intensive jobs.”
“For the IRA, to the extent it’s going to build green manufacturing here in the U.S., that’s somewhat promising,” he said.
The data also painted a picture geographically, with those working in energy-rich fossil fuel states or cities less likely to transition to green jobs.
In cities like Oklahoma City, Denver, Houston and Wilmington — in Mr. Biden‘s home state of Delaware — more than half of transitions out of dirty jobs were into other dirty jobs.
Among the top 15 states with the highest dirty-to-dirty job transition rates were Delaware, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Texas, Ohio and West Virginia.
“There are definitely a number of places in the U.S. that if you were to remove the carbon-intensive job option, there would be really big hits to workers,” Mr. Curtis said.
The study was partially funded by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth and NBER‘s Environment and Energy Economics program. The two other co-authors were University of Pennsylvania environmental and labor economist R. Jisung Park and Lightcast employee Layla O’Kane.