Energy Jobs and the Future

In the most recent and final presidential debate Joe Biden commented, “I would transition away from the oil industry, yes,” in response to Trump’s accusation that he wanted to wreck the oil industry and force an end to the use of fossil fuels.

By the next day, campaign ads were running in fossil fuel-rich states lambasting Biden’s promotion of renewable energy over fossil fuels. Texas comes to mind. Oops, already 61 % of energy-related jobs in Texas are in renewable energy industries as opposed to oil and gas – 254 thousand renewable energy jobs versus 162 thousand jobs in oil and gas.

If you want to see the future of fossil fuels, look no further than coal. Trump campaigned on revitalizing the coal industry. Several regulations via executive orders favored coal production and use yet the industry is in its death throes. Coal-fired powered plants are rapidly closing around the country not because of governmental largess but rather from simple economics. Wind, solar, and natural gas are all a cheaper way to produce electricity.

An argument has been made that the oil industry is important for transportation but the cost to move an electric vehicle down the road is some one-third to one quarter the cost of moving a vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine fueled with gasoline or diesel fuel.

There is no question that transitioning from one form of job within an industry to another will cause a loss of jobs, but at the same time, new job categories will be created. When the horse and buggy were displaced by the automobile, buggy whip makers were thrown out of work. As far as I have been able to determine, no great effort to preserve those jobs occurred. The country moved on with the new technology and new jobs.

The use of fossil fuels is unlikely to go away completely for a long, long time. Lubricants and chemical feedstocks will continue to be made from oil. Useful and recyclable plastics will continue to be made from natural gas. Even coal has a limited utility in smelting ores for industries such as steel manufacturing. Burning a fossil fuel to produce bulk power however, is on the way out. And for good reasons.

First and foremost is economics. Wind and solar are already the cheapest source of electric power if you don’t need storage, and we are a long way from needing storage. Balancing sources on the electric grid can handle up to about thirty percent penetration before storage becomes an issue. Right now we are at slightly less than ten percent of electricity production from wind and solar and vigorous research and development programs are rapidly dropping the cost of storage.

Then there is the continuing existential threat to the planet of global warming and the forcing of climate change. The only way to avert this crisis is to stop loading the atmosphere with greenhouse gasses and ending the use of fossil fuels is the cheapest and fastest way to achieve this end.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

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