A bill introduced late last month by Vermont senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders could cost tens of thousands of IBEW jobs and cripple a natural gas industry fueling job growth across the entire U.S.
The issue played a key factor in the IBEW’s endorsement earlier this month of his primary opponent, Vice President Joe Biden.
“We agree on many things with Sen. Sanders. He’s been a friend to the labor movement for years,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “But we couldn’t sit idly by while he recklessly attacks the livelihoods of our members whose jobs could be gone overnight if he gets his way on natural gas.”
At present, IBEW members work at nearly every stage of the natural gas industry, from extraction and processing to transportation, export, and consumption. Conservative estimates place the number of IBEW jobs at risk by Sanders’ proposal in the tens of thousands.
Moreover, America’s energy supply depends on natural gas as a critical bridge fuel until the technology and economics of renewables can close the gap between supply and demand. In 2018, natural gas plants accounted for 35.2% of total U.S. energy output. In Nevada, one of the earliest presidential primary contests, natural gas plants produce a whopping 69% of the state’s energy supply.
The benefits of natural gas to the utility industry are immense. Unlike other baseload sources, natural gas plants can be switched on and off at a moment’s notice, adding or removing huge amounts of power to the grid to meet consumer demand. Renewables like wind and solar create power when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining, not necessarily when demand is needed. That requires the flexibility of gas until grid-scale storage can be built nationwide.
“Our focus is the reliability and resiliency of the power grid, and natural gas allows us the flexibility to add renewables to the energy mix,” said Utility Department Director Donnie Colston. “To suggest that we could flip a switch overnight and make the leap to an all-renewable energy supply is just fantasy.”
Sixty-five thousand utility members work in the gas industry at generating stations and in residential and commercial distribution. Natural gas also accounts for 50% of the home heating in the U.S.
But that doesn’t paint the entire picture. The IBEW’s construction branch relies on the natural gas industry for millions of man-hours of work each year.
Beaver, Pa., Local 712 is in the midst of a natural gas gold rush, fueled by the nearby Marcellus and Utica shale gas fields, said Business Manager Frank Telesz. The Shell Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex under construction there has already employed 1,500 electricians, and Telesz said he expects 500 more before the project goes operational next year. Spinoff projects, long-term maintenance agreements and more will keep the region’s electricians at work for decades.
“This area was hit hard when steel collapsed and by the closure of major coal-fired generating plants,” Telesz said. “Our children had to move away to get work. The effects of the natural gas boom here have been astronomical. It’s just a whirlwind of work, and the influx of engineers, chemists and other high-skilled jobs are revitalizing this region.
“Shutting it all down would be devastating,” he said.
Pipeline and export work are creating jobs hundreds of miles from gas extraction points. At the Marcus Hook Industrial Complex in suburban Philadelphia, which for years sat empty and abandoned after Sunoco Logistics shut it down in 2011, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent converting the former gasoline refinery and export facility into a transfer station for liquified natural gas.
Chester, Pa., Local 654 was part of a $200 million project labor agreement signed with Philadelphia’s Building Trades last year to repurpose and expand the terminus of two pipelines from eastern Ohio, each of which employed hundreds of IBEW members across four local unions – Local 654; Pittsburgh Local 5; Reading, Pa., Local 743; and Harrisburg, Pa., Local 143.
In northern Michigan, a small two-turbine, 432-megawatt gas plant is representative of the hundreds of IBEW-built and -run natural gas generating stations scattered across the country.
Wolverine Power Cooperative’s $166 million Alpine plant was built in 2015 by members of Traverse City, Mich., Local 498, who did all of the substation, power line and construction work to get the plant online. Keeping it online are 11 members of Grand Rapids Local 876, who were recently awarded one of Power Magazine’s “Top Plants” in the world honors for their record-breaking efficiency.
In addition to the nearly 2,000 natural gas generating stations currently in service across the U.S., another 177 are under construction, planned or announced, according to a USA Today analysis. That figure represents millions of man-hours of IBEW construction and line work that could be lost.
One of those plants under construction is a new 485-megawatt gas peaker in Hannibal, Ohio, being built my members of Marietta Local 972. Wiremen have been on site for about 8 months and Business Manager Troy Ferrell expects them to be there another year and a half.
Down the road in Belmont County, Ohio, another planned ethane cracker like the Shell project in Beaver could bring thousands of jobs to the region. That project is in Wheeling, W. Va., Local 141’s jurisdiction, but Ferrell says the spinoff work in neighboring counties under his local’s jurisdiction will be a game-changer for eastern Ohio. “We had a lot of cryogenics sites and compressor stations here back in 2014 and 2015 before the price of natural gas changed, but this cracker plant will be a huge benefit to this region in terms of jobs,” he said. “It has the potential to change this area tremendously.”
Sen. Sanders’ bill threatens both new construction work and thousands of existing utility jobs as well as the reliability and stability of the power grid itself.
“The IBEW is committed to combatting climate change,” Stephenson said. “But we’re committed to doing it in a realistic way that doesn’t ignore the consequences of acting rashly and without input from the professionals who are actually doing the work.
“Vice President Biden’s energy plan has been shaped by our input, and while it shares the same goal of reducing America’s dependence on carbon-producing fossil fuels, it does so in a way that maintains the reliability of the grid and accounts for the importance of good energy jobs across the U.S.
“Without natural gas, our path to wider adoption of renewables is extraordinarily complicated, and IBEW members, their families and the American public at large would pay dearly for Sen. Sanders’ ill-conceived plan.”