Green Jobs Vs. Brown Jobs

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President Obama will be making his much-anticipated speech on job creation this evening—though, fortunately, he won’t be interfering with the kickoff of the NFL season. But he still has to answer the question—where will those jobs come from?

In the early months of his Presidency, Obama had an answer: the jobs of the future would be green. Here’s the President talking about the effects of stimulus spending at a town hall meeting in early 2009:

We also have put in money that provide for the weatherization of millions of homes across the country.  Now, this is an example of where you get a multiplier effect.  If you allocate money to weatherize homes, the homeowner gets the benefit of lower energy bills.  You right away put people back to work, many of whom in the construction industry and in the housing industry are out of work right now — they are immediately put to work doing something.  You can train young people as apprentices to start getting training at — in home construction through weatherization.  And you start reducing energy costs for the nation as a whole.  So there are billions of dollars in this plan allocated for moving us towards a new energy future.

Have those jobs materialized? Yes and no. As I wrote earlier this summer, there are millions of jobs in America that can be counted as “green.” And the sectors we might think of as cleantech—like solar panel manufacturing and renewable energy research—are growing incredibly quickly. But those industries were tiny to begin with, and they’re still small. Meanwhile, the recent bankruptcy of the solar panel manufacturer Solyndra, which had hundreds of millions in government backing, is a reminder that not every renewable energy company will succeed. Competition in the sector is incredibly strong—especially from China—and at least some of those jobs, like other manufacturing work in America, are being outsourced.

More from TIME: Green Jobs—Still More Promise than Reality

Perhaps as a result, there’s been a recent backlash against the concept of green jobs, with some critics arguing that the country hasn’t gotten enough return in new employment for its investment. Here’s David Brooks in the New York Times earlier this week:

A study by McKinsey suggests that clean energy may produce jobs for highly skilled engineers, but it will not produce many jobs for U.S. manufacturing workers. Gordon Hughes, formerly of the World Bank and now an economist at the University of Edinburgh, surveyed the landscape and concluded: “There are no sound economic arguments to support an assertion that green energy policies will increase the total level of employment in the medium or longer term when we hold macroeconomic conditions constant.”

So if green jobs aren’t the future, what is? Maybe brown jobs. That’s what the oil and gas industry has been pushing. Yesterday the American Petroleum Institute (API) released a study authored by the consulting group Woods Mackenzie arguing that greatly expanded drilling—and the approval of projects like the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline—could generate more than 1.4 million new jobs and generate more than $800 billion in government revenue by 2030. And, course, there’d be lots more oil, as API President Jack Gerard put it:

 If the full potential of domestic oil and gas production could be achieved while also increasing imports of Canadian oil, all of America’s liquid fuels could come from secure North American sources within 15 years,

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Um, I don’t think so. Right now the U.S. imports about half its liquid petroleum products, and while the biggest exporter is Canada, it would take far more than some oil sands, oil shale and offshore drilling to get the U.S. completely off crude imports from the rest of the world. Not to mention the fact that increasing North American production still wouldn’t do much to reduce the price of gas.

Still, it is true that the oil and gas industry employs a lot of people—albeit fewer than the total number of Americans employed in the broader green economy. For their part, environmentalists are striking back—the liberal Center for American Progress (CAP) released its own report on the importance of green jobs, arguing that for every $1 million invested, 16.7 green jobs are created, compared to 5.3 jobs for the same amount of investment in fossil fuel industries. Energy efficiency seems like a particularly promising area, as CAP’s Bracken Hendricks and Jorge Madrid wrote:

If we retrofitted just 40 percent of the nation’s residential and commercial building stock, we would mobilize a massive amount of domestic labor, over half a million (625,000) sustained full time jobs over a decade. This would generate as much as $64 billion per year in cost savings for U.S. energy ratepayers. That’s means $300 to $1,200 in savings for individual families.

More from TIME: California Elections—Environmentalists Get Green

So who’s right? The frightening reality is that America’s employment problem is so huge that we’ll need job creation from nearly every sector, both brown and green. And while I agree with the view of commentators like Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations that the promise of green jobs has sometimes been oversold, renewable energy does stand to be one of the fastest-growing industrials sectors in the future—and if you care about climate change and energy security, one of the most important. At this point I suspect Americans would take jobs of any hue, but over the long run, we’ll need to go green.

Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME 

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