How BlueGreen Alliance uses labor's voice to defend the low-carbon economy

"The clean economy kills jobs." It's an argument that the Trump administration and other proponents of dismantling environmental regulations or killing incentives for renewable energy and cleantech use regularly to justify their actions.

The BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of labor unions and environmental groups, has amassed plenty of facts and figures to counter that point of view. These days, it issues policy positions on an almost weekly basis. Right now, it finds itself in the unique position of opposing two Trump administration policies, while supporting another.

This week, the group came out against the Environmental Protection Agency’s plans to repeal the Clean Power Plan. Last month, BlueGreen decried a plan that would reverse fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks because the regulations drive job creation that could be lost if the rules are scrapped.

"Americans want comprehensive solutions to address the threat of climate change that puts workers and communities first — something the administration is denying them with these latest efforts to roll back clean energy progress," BlueGreen Alliance Executive Director Kim Glas said Monday.

On the flip side, BlueGreen supports Trump’s proposed spending on U.S. infrastructure projects. It is working with labor groups and businesses to outline projects that would create jobs and equip American cities with next-generation structures and technologies that have a low environmental impact — and that will be resilient to extreme weather events, such as flooding, which could become more frequent with climate change.

An easier argument to make

BlueGreen's case on jobs is getting stronger. Employment in renewable energy sectors has grown quickly. The solar industry employed about 374,000 people in 2016, up 25 percent from a year earlier, according to a January report (PDF) by the Department of Energy. U.S. wind farms employed about 102,000 workers last year, up 32 percent from 2015, according to the report. 

What's more, additional jobs have been created due to federal fuel efficiency standards established during the Obama administration, according to the group. The clean vehicle technology industry supports about 288,000 manufacturing and engineering jobs, according to a May report (PDF) by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the BlueGreen Alliance. Nearly 1 million Americans work in auto manufacturing or auto components manufacturing, which together form the single largest manufacturing segment in the United States, according to the report. 

"Fuel economy standards help encourage manufacturing investment in the U.S. and have really been key to bringing back jobs in the auto sector and securing them going forward," said Zoe Lipman, director of the BlueGreen Alliance’s vehicles and advanced transportation program.

If U.S. companies stop investing and innovating in clean-vehicle technology, they easily could fall behind competitors in China that are aggressively pursuing cleaner, better technologies, she added.

That sentiment was echoed in a statement by Dan Boone, president of the United Steelworkers Union Local 979, which represents workers at the ArcelorMittal Plan in Cleveland, Ohio. About 28,000 clean vehicle manufacturing jobs are at 80 factories in Ohio, he said. 

"Today’s fuel economy standards are proof that sound regulations can go hand in hand with making manufacturing thrive," Boone said in September, at an event prior to an official EPA hearing in Washington.

It is unclear how many U.S. jobs would be lost if the EPA rolls back federal fuel efficiency standards. The rules would require cars and light trucks sold in the U.S. to limit their carbon dioxide emissions by achieving an average fuel efficiency of 50.8 miles per gallon by 2025, up from 35.3 mpg currently.

Regardless of which path the U.S. takes, China and other countries are beefing up their clean vehicle requirements, which will likely boost manufacturing and jobs in those regions as companies race to comply. For example, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in early October unveiled a set of rules that require automakers to meet tough new clean-car sales targets by 2019.

More relevant than ever 

The BlueGreen Alliance was started in 2006 by United Steelworkers International President Leo Gerard and Carl Pope, Sierra Club’s executive director at the time. Other influential members include the Natural Resources Defense Council, National Wildlife Federation, Communications Workers of America, Service Employees International Union and International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers. The group is headquartered in Minneapolis, has offices in Washington and San Francisco, and maintains field staff in seven states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Alliance members don’t always see eye to eye. The Laborers’ International Union of North America, which used to be a member, quit the Alliance in 2012, following a disagreement with other members over the Keystone XL oil pipeline. 

"When we cannot find consensus among our members, we focus on areas where there is agreement and our work is derived from that," said Eric Steen, a spokesman for BlueGreen. 

The United Autoworkers Union also deactivated its membership, although it still works with the alliance on fuel efficiency standards and other issues, Steen said.

Companies including General Motors, ArcelorMittal and International Paper work with the alliance as members of the group’s corporate advisory council.

GM stands to benefit from the alliance's position on emissions standards. In early October, it announced a far more aggressive roadmap for electric vehicles, with 20 new all-electric models anticipated by 2023 and two of those expected out in less than two years. The company said last month it plans to have at least 10 all-electric and hybrid models on the market in China by 2020.

"General Motors believes in an all-electric future," Mark Reuss, General Motors executive vice president of product development, purchasing and supply chain, said in a statement. "Although that future won't happen overnight, GM is committed to driving increased usage and acceptance of electric vehicles through no-compromise solutions that meet our customers' needs."

Likewise, GM's rival Ford Motor recently said it plans to roll out 13 electric vehicles and invest $4.5 billion over the next five years. The company also plans to develop a new line of low-cost all-electric passenger vehicles in China.

Eager to see investment in infrastructure

One area where BlueGreen would welcome more action from the Trump administration is on infrastructure.

U.S. companies and workers would benefit from an infusion of capital into infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges, water systems, natural gas distribution pipelines, buildings and electric grids, according to the alliance. An investment of $2.25 trillion could lead to the creation of 14.5 million new job-years across the U.S. economy and add $1.66 trillion to the gross domestic product over 10 years, according to a September report (PDF) issued by the group.

Key investments that would create jobs, cut greenhouse gas emissions and increase productivity include transit improvements, building a smart electrical grid, creating systems that reduce solid waste and expanding renewable energy, such as solar and wind power generation, according to the report.

Trump has yet to release details about his $1 trillion rebuilding proposal, after the administration said in May that it would commit at least $200 billion of federal funds over 10 years that would drive $800 billion of spending by state and local governments and businesses.