Jason Walsh stands across what used to be a fault line.
As leader of the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of labor unions and environmental advocacy groups, he works to pursue the members’ common interests in the growth of the clean energy economy.
The alliance was founded in 2006 by the United Steelworkers and the Sierra Club, a duo that Walsh describes as the “original odd bedfellows.”
While there are still gaps between union leaders and some environmental groups, involving such issues as whether to build fossil fuel pipelines, the sides have found ways to emphasize the areas in which they agree.
The results include some major provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act, including rules that give projects additional tax credits if they meet standards for pay and benefits.
Walsh, the alliance’s leader since 2019, has decades of experience in the worlds of labor and energy policy. In the 1990s, he was a union organizer, including time with the Service Employees International Union. He later worked in the Obama administration in several energy policy roles.
As we approach the Aug. 16 anniversary of the IRA’s signing, I spoke with Walsh about the areas of agreement and disagreement among his members and what he sees as the major challenges in building a clean energy workforce. Here’s our conversation, edited for length and clarity:
Could you explain what the BlueGreen Alliance is?
Bluegreen Alliance is a national partnership of labor unions and environmental organizations. We were founded 17 years ago by our two original odd bedfellows, the Steelworkers union and the Sierra Club, and have since grown to include 14 major national and international unions and environmental groups who collectively represent about 50 million Americans. The guiding principle that brings and keeps those groups together is a belief that Americans shouldn’t have to choose between good jobs and a clean environment, that we can and must have both. And the federal legislation that we worked on, and many others worked on in the 117th Congress, which resulted in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, we viewed as a means of making that principle real, and really laying the policy groundwork for building a high-road clean energy economy that’s worker and community centered, that advances economic and racial justice and dramatically drives down climate pollution.
I would guess that you are often in a position of having to mediate between what the environmental community wants and what labor wants. What are the big friction points right now?
I’m not being cute here in saying that we’re not actually dealing with a lot of friction points right now. I’m going to name one, but then I want to pull back the aperture just a little bit.
Permitting and siting certainly is a tension point that we are working through, particularly with all of these new investments coming online. That requires us as a country to build a lot of stuff at speed and scale, and figuring out a position for our coalition that honors and protects our existing environmental laws, while also building out a lot of infrastructure, is a needle that we have to thread. For example, we were unable to take a position on the Manchin legislation at the end of the last Congress. We are working internally right now to be able to put forward a unified position on permitting reform, and particularly focusing on transmission, which all of our labor and environmental partners recognize is absolutely a critical part of realizing the climate benefits of the investments from the Inflation Reduction Act. But we’re still working toward that.
That said, we as a coalition are more unified than we’ve ever been. And a lot of it goes back to a platform that we developed and released in 2019, called “Solidarity for Climate Action,” which you may have seen. That platform took eight months and 24 drafts to complete; these are the joys of working in coalition. But when we did finalize it, all of our labor and environmental partners signed on to it. It starts from the premise that we are facing a climate crisis in this country, but we are also facing a crisis of income inequality that is grounded in economic and racial injustice, and we have to solve both of these crises at the same time, and the primary vector for doing so is to build out a clean energy economy that is centered on jobs and justice.
Now, there has been a lot of conflict between labor unions and environmental groups in previous years around some high-profile projects, pipelines being the illustrative example, with Keystone being a particularly painful one. And what those conflicts obscured, I think, was just how much the environmental and labor movements agreed on.
One big picture issue that you must be dealing with is this sense among, especially union members, that the jobs that are going away with the energy transition are more desirable in terms of pay and benefits than the new jobs. What do you say to that?
So yes, there is a pay gap. And we’ve put out the data showing it in black and white. And it’s why all of our environmental partners joined with all of our labor partners to demand, in the context of crafting and then advancing and passing the inflation Reduction Act, that the strongest possible labor standards be attached to that spending. We were and still are—because the law hasn’t fully kicked in yet—seeing significant gaps in wages between workers in renewable energy sectors and workers and fossil fuel sectors. And that’s a big problem. It’s an equity problem, and it is a political problem. And we certainly can’t expect workers to accept the necessity of this transition if their jobs are going away, or they’re getting other jobs in clean energy sectors that pay less and offer less voice on the job and security on the job. So, our push for clean energy investments with strong labor and equity standards was an enormous unifier. Within our coalition, all of our environmental groups stood shoulder to shoulder with our labor groups. There was pushback from industry on those standards, but at the end of the day, we got it done. And so we now have for clean energy tax credits, for the first time ever, within the inflation Reduction Act, prevailing wage standards and registered apprenticeship utilization standards for all utility scale, green energy projects that are incentivized by these tax credits. That is a big deal. And it’s a story of how our environmental and labor groups banded together to recognize we’ve got a problem here and we need to solve it with public policy.
I’ve asked you about the points of friction. What are the things that, up and down your coalition, everyone agrees on?
The need to build a clean energy economy that not only takes the climate crisis head on, but also takes on the crisis of economic and racial inequality in this country. That added score is what unifies us and keeps us together. And it’s a consensus that we wielded to great effect in the 117th Congress, and that we continue to wield as we work on implementation.
Keep Environmental Journalism Alive
ICN provides award-winning climate coverage free of charge and advertising. We rely on donations from readers like you to keep going.
Other stories about the energy transition to take note of this week:
The Biden Administration Moves to Increase Fuel Economy Standards: The Transportation Department has proposed raising fuel efficiency requirements for cars and light trucks by about 20 percent over six years, as Mike Lee reports for E&E News. The proposal would raise the corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, from 49 miles per gallon in 2026 to 58 miles per gallon in 2032. The rule is being put forward at the same time that the Environmental Protection Agency has a pending rule that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions even more. One of the underlying ideas is that any such rules are going to face legal challenges and the CAFE update is likely on solid legal ground if the EPA rule is forced to change because of the legal process.
Ford Delays EV Production Goals and Sees Less-Than-Expected Demand for Now: Ford Motor Co. has pushed back its production timeline for electric vehicles, saying demand has been slower than expected, as Jeanne Whalen reports for The Washington Post. Ford said it expects to reach a production rate of 600,000 EVs per year at some point in 2024, which is later than the company’s previous statement of reaching that level by the end of this year. I wrote last week about how EV production has caught up with demand for some brands and models.
Vogtle 3 Nuclear Reactor Is Finally, Seriously Online: Georgia Power’s long-delayed Plant Vogtle Unit 3 is finally sending electricity to the grid and serving customers following years of delays and billions of dollars in cost overruns, as Maria Gallucci reports for Canary Media. The 1,100-megawatt unit began commercial operations on Monday, which makes it the country’s first newly built nuclear reactor to go online in more than three decades. A second new reactor, Unit 4, is in the final stages of construction and is likely to go online late this year or early next year. During a fraught construction process, Plant Vogtle’s costs rose from $14 billion to $30 billion and its completion had to be pushed back from an original goal of 2017. The plant is a substantial source of carbon-free electricity, but the many challenges with its development have done damage to the prospects of building other large nuclear plants and utilities. Instead, the nuclear industry has shifted its focus to small modular reactors, with several startups working on projects that aim to be simpler from a construction perspective and, hopefully, avoid major cost overruns.
New Rules Could Unclog Bottlenecks in Connecting Clean Energy to the Grid: The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission voted last week to approve rules that aim to speed up the process of connecting new power sources to the grid, as Catherine Clifford reports for CNBC. The rules take various steps to shorten the process of connecting to the grid, including deadlines and penalties for transmission line operators to approve the connections. But experts told Clifford that the FERC action is just one step in what needs to be more extensive reforms.
A U.S. Solar Panel Recycling Industry Is Taking Shape: We Recycle Solar is a company that has opened the first plant in the United States that recycles panels from utility-scale solar arrays, as Isabella O’Malley reports for the Associated Press. This Yuma, Arizona plant is the start of an emerging industry that will deal with the waste when solar panels reach the end of their lives. The challenge is to make recycling so efficient that it’s less expensive than sending the panels to a landfill, and that’s precisely the goal of companies in this space.
Inside Clean Energy is ICN’s weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.