Leaders on the front lines of the oil and gas industry are pushing back against Democrats’ attempts to kick the country’s reliance on fossil fuels. They argue they will be integral to the global economy for years to come and that the industry workers’ skills cannot simply be carried over to support alternative energies.
President Joe Biden has shaped his energy policies aimed at disrupting the fossil fuel industry into something of a job marketing campaign, pitching his party’s response to climate change as a chance to put people, including oil and gas workers displaced by a fossil-to-renewable transition, to work in wind, solar, and the like at prevailing wages.
“When I think of climate change, I think of — and the answers to it — I think of jobs,” Biden said during remarks in January as he signed an executive order on climate change, which paused new oil and gas leases on public lands, among other things.
But Shawn Steffee, business manager of the Boilermakers Local 154, said the industrial welders, equipment operators, and other heavy construction workers who fill his union’s ranks are equipped to build and maintain gas-fired power and petrochemical plants — not to construct solar or wind farms.
“These are really good jobs — really good blue-collar union jobs,” Steffee told the Washington Examiner of his members’ lines of work. His jurisdiction covers parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, all three of which are leading natural gas-producing states.
“These men and women who work in them, they are highly skilled tradesmen and women,” Steffee said, adding later, “Solar and wind has nothing to do with us. They don’t need high-pressure tube welders to put solar panels up.”
A recent report from data firm Cicero Group, North America’s Building Trades Unions, and the American Petroleum Institute put forward the same case. It found that only two of the 18 top oil and gas jobs are “reasonably transferable” to the 18 most in-demand occupations related to clean energy, establishing also that “wind and solar farms are more likely to require fewer skilled trades workers, from a narrower selection of trades, compared to oil and natural gas construction and maintenance projects.”
Steffee said his members would be eager to take up other kinds of work supporting Biden’s greenhouse gas reduction targets, which include a goal of slashing emissions by at least 50% by 2030 and name carbon management technology as a candidate.
“We’re ready right now to build carbon capture projects. We’re ready — send us a blueprint [and] we’re ready to build it,” he said. But, he maintained, gas “is vital for us” and for the economy, a reality born out by sailing global demand and record natural gas prices in Europe in recent months.
Marc Marmo, CEO of Zelienople, Pennsylvania-based hydraulic fracturing completions and workover firm Deep Well Services, said business boomed in the latter half of 2021 as oil and gas production increased with that boost in demand.
“We’re busier than we’ve ever been,” Marmo said in an interview, guessing that about 60% of the company’s revenue came in the last six months of the year.
Deep Well Services, which has contracted with supermajors such as ExxonMobil and Chevron, as well as oil giant Saudi Aramco and the Argentinian government, had hired around 330 people on the year as of early December. That includes lucrative positions such as welders, mechanics, drivers, and equipment supervisors, and Marmo estimated the company would enter the new year at about 500 employees strong.
“Last year, our average pay in the company was low six figures. These guys that are supervising our equipment, they’ll make 250 grand a year, and they work 6-8 months,” he said.
Maintaining those “life-sustaining, family-sustaining jobs,” is vital for a region with a history of economic disaffection, Marmo said.
“I’ve gone through the years when the steel industry left. I saw Pittsburgh pretty much become the Rust Belt,” he said. “What’s been nice with this industry, starting really back in ’08 in western Pennsylvania, was it came in and it’s added the [economic] benefits.”
Marmo went on to describe a boon to hospitality and other local industries that oil and gas businesses, including major firms such as Houston-based oil field service Halliburton, have brought, maintaining economic vitality in an area other wealthy companies would ignore.
“There are not too many companies that will spend $10 billion in the state drilling and completing wells,” he said. “There are not too many industries — Amazon’s not spending $10 billion in western PA.”