Are Green Jobs Worth The Cost?

In his book Ethical Oil author and activist Ezra Levant argues that attempts to replace carbon based energy – in this case, oil from the Alberta oil sands – with renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar have been an “unmitigated disaster” [p207] in Spain, and by extension, other countries such as Germany.

This is relatively small part of a larger and more complicated argument presented in Levant’s book, where he quite forcefully makes the case that oil extracted from the Alberta oil sands is getting a bad rap. According to Levant it is completely misleading to call oil sands oil “dirty oil”. Instead, he argues, that all things considered, oil sands oil is extracted in an environmentally responsible way that has minimal negative impact on the environment, and a significantly positive impact on the economies of Canada and the U.S.

First Nations employment

An additional noteworthy local benefit, according to Levant, is that oil sands developments are the largest employers of First Nations people in the entire country. These are not just low-paying jobs flipping burgers, but high-paying jobs doing meaningful work in sophisticated technical operations. Oil sands developments have also resulted in the formation of numerous First Nations companies that handle spin-offs of all kinds.

Much of this information is completely unknown to most Canadians (and Americans). We think of the oil sands as being dirty operations that pollute the local environment and create large waste areas that are a threat to both humans and local wildlife.

When ducks land on Suncor tailings ponds the media have a field day. But we are not told that less than 20% of the current oil sands developments use open pit mining (that create tailings ponds) and that these are all older operations gradually being replaced by newer ones. These new developments extract oil from well below the surface and don’t involve strip mining at all.

In other words, Levant argues that oil sands oil is not “dirty”, and that virtually every other source of usable energy has greater negatives attached to it. As he says more than once, “If not oil from the Alberta oil sands, then where will we get it?” Oil from Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Russia, Iran?

Green Jobs and Alternative Energy

So far so good (as far as I can tell). It’s when he takes on the viability of alternative energy sources like wind and solar that I question his approach. In the chapter called “Green Jobs: The Enron of Environmentalism” he doesn’t directly attack the idea of generating energy from alternative sources – wind, solar, geo-thermal, etc. He simply assumes that these are not economically viable alternatives.

Whether this is true or not, he is certainly correct in claiming that the advocates of green energy justify significant subsidies on the basis of “green job” creation. This is the focus of the Obama program in the U.S., and it is a major theme in Ontario’s Green Energy Act. This will presumably include jobs in research, engineering, construction, retrofitting old buildings, building and installing new power generating facilities, and manufacturing things like wind turbines, solar panels and so on.

The problem, Levant claims is that it hasn’t worked. This very “green jobs” strategy has been tried in Spain for more than 10 years and a recent study by Spanish economic researchers has shown that large government subsidies intended to create green jobs have actually resulted in a net loss of jobs. If this is true then there are a lot of politicians blowing smoke.

But here’s the thing. Levant builds his entire case against “green jobs” on a report called A Study of the Effects on Employment of Public Aid to Renewable Energy Sources wirtten by Dr. Gabriel Calzada, an economics professor at Juan Carlos University in Madrid.

But as Tracey de Morsella, a critic of this study has shown, Calzada is a well known climate change denier and a “a fellow at the Centre for the New Europe, a Brussels-based libertarian think tank that in recent years has accepted funding from ExxonMobil.”

Being a climate change denier is not necessarily a bad thing, but taking money from ExxonMobil very well could be. At the very least it gives us good reason to look a bit closer at his conclusions. As de Morsella says, “ExxonMobil has a history of funding groups that have misrepresented the science of climate change by outright denial of the evidence.”

More importantly, de Morsella questions both Calzada’s facts and his methodology. Whatever you think about renewable energy and “green jobs” I recommend you have a close look at the de Morsella article. Because while I agree with many of Ezra Levant’s points about the Alberta oil sands, simply taking his word on the matter of “green jobs” and the success or failure of the Spanish experience is not good enough.

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