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Unions occupy a middle ground on issues of environmental policy

Industry and the environmental community often grab top billing when it comes to the perennial struggle over clean air and climate change rules. But they are not the only two groups with an interest in those regulations.

Labor has its own set of priorities when it comes to emissions mandates, and unions may find common cause with either side depending on whether they view a policy as a job creator or a job destroyer. And they have the political leverage on Capitol Hill to make their views felt, especially with Democratic members.

"The absolute bottom line for every one of these unions is going to be the continued employment of its members," said Kate Gordon, vice president for energy policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

Gordon said she was not surprised, for example, that the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and United Mineworkers of America worked with American Electric Power Co. Inc. to craft a proposal to give utilities more time to retrofit their power plants and to reduce their compliance obligations.

IBEW has also been tasked with finding a Democratic sponsor for the proposal. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has been mentioned as one possibility, though he has not yet voiced support for the measure.

"It shouldn't have surprised anybody that IBEW and the coal miners took the positions they did, because those are their members, and they work in those plants," Gordon said.

Jim Hunter, director of IBEW's utility department, said his union got involved last fall, when its national leaders became concerned that a suite of new U.S. EPA rules due out in the coming few years would have the cumulative effect of shutting down many more coal-fired utilities than the agency had estimated.

EPA officials said in March that they expect a proposed rule for mercury and other toxics from coal- and oil-fired power plants to contribute to the early retirement of 10 gigawatts of capacity, but Hunter said this figure does not take into account that the maximum achievable control technology standard will not be the only new mandate the industry will face in the next few years.

Other rules are set to phase in during roughly the same period for pollutants such as coal ash, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and greenhouse gas emissions.

"So we started early on trying to determine how many plants would close -- versus being retrofitted -- and our numbers kept coming up around 56 GW, which would be a tremendous hit to the system," he said.

Hunter said these numbers helped convince IBEW that EPA regulations would be a net negative for its members, outweighing the jobs IBEW members stand to gain from the installation of scrubbers and other emissions-reduction equipment.

"If it was 10 GW, and installing a lot of scrubbers on a lot of plants, that's a good scenario for us," he said. "The problem is it's not reality."

Realistically, Hunter said, utilities will be scrambling to retrofit or retire facilities within the maximum four years the Clean Air Act allows after the utility toxics rule is finalized -- a rush that could result in the loss of between 15,000 and 20,000 IBEW jobs.

The measure IBEW and the coal miners negotiated with AEP would require utilities to commit to a schedule for retrofitting facilities that will remain in service past 2020. The proposal would exempt plants from these new rules if utilities agreed to retire them by that year.

Hunter said IBEW's participation in crafting the bill is a departure from past practices.

"We really until the last few years haven't been that involved with the EPA and where these rules are going -- the companies have kind of taken care of it," he said.

Unions pressuring industry

Still, Hunter said the union negotiators drove a hard bargain in their talks with AEP, demanding that the draft require utilities to stick to a schedule of retrofitting 100 percent of remaining plants by 2020.

"We come at this from a very different viewpoint from the investor-owned utilities," he said. "They're looking at money and profits. We're just looking at jobs."

Robert Baugh, who chairs the AFL-CIO Energy and Environment Task Force, said he was surprised by the scope of the AEP draft, which the federation has not endorsed. He said he had expected the bill simply to deal with the timeline for compliance.

Baugh said, however, that unions have a history of pushing the industries they work with to make environmental commitments, both because it is an investment in the health of the communities where workers live and because it creates jobs.

"Our unions would like to see these industries make the investments they need to clean up their act," he said. "We know that if they make these investments, it will generate lots of work."

"What we didn't want is [industry] just delaying and delaying and saying, 'Give us some more time,' and then they close it all anyway," he added.

John Coequyt of the Sierra Club credited the unions with injecting some balance into the AEP bill, which was roundly panned by environmentalists for offering broad exemptions from the Clean Air Act but which nonetheless stops short of the level of EPA pre-emption they say AEP might have wished for.

"I view that as a compromise position between labor, which wants the cleanup jobs around power plants and AEP, which basically wants out from under the [emissions rules] deadline," he said. "I would not read what IBEW has done as full-stop anti-EPA."

In general, Coequyt said unions and environmental groups were forging deeper bonds than they had in the past through participation in coalitions like the Blue Green Alliance, which promotes policies of interest to both groups.

"Our relationship with unions is growing stronger," Coequyt said. He noted that environmental groups had lent their support for wage requirements for "green" jobs created by public funding and for protections for domestic industries that were added to the 2009 House climate change bill.

"We worked very hard with the [United Steelworkers] and others to make sure that the climate bill as written met their needs, and we spent a tremendous amount of time and energy talking through policy options and coming up with preferred approaches," Coequyt said.

Tweaking the climate bill

One of the most important union contributions to the climate bill was language offered in committee by Reps. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) and Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) that would have permitted the United States to impose de facto tariffs after a certain date to protect energy-intensive manufacturing if the United States adopted a carbon price and its major global competitors did not.

Doyle said last week that the success of Doyle-Inslee was in many ways a testament to the pull unions had even with Democrats from nonmanufacturing districts.

Doyle said then-Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and others were influenced by the "pressure coming from groups like the Steelworkers, who sided with administrative concerns about clean air and climate change but also were very concerned about what is the impact on industries like the steel industry that have these trade pressures," he said.

Unions are unique among lobbying groups because they are advocating from a position of protecting their livelihoods, said David Foster, who became executive director of the Blue Green Alliance after a career with the Steelworkers.

"Union members tend to be more deeply invested in their union than just about any constituency I know, and that's because their economic livelihood is tied up in the job the union does," he said. "And that's just not the case with most other organizations."

Baugh said that the environmental community had come a long way in its understanding of labor priorities. He said the two groups had been further apart before the climate change effort last Congress, when environmentalists gave "well-intentioned lip service" to support for green jobs but excluded some industries that did not fit with their view of the term, like the manufacture of efficient automobiles or carbon capture and sequestration for coal-fired power plants.

"As the climate debate went ahead, I think the environmental community listened much more," Baugh said. "We do know more about creating jobs than they do on these things. And they were interested in and supportive of the things we were trying to do."

Mining dissent

Not all unions share this view of the environmental community, however. Bill Banig, director of government affairs for the United Mineworkers of America, said greens generally remain hostile to coal as an industry, refusing to lend their full support to stand-alone legislation to promote CCS even though it would help reduce carbon emissions from coal-powered utilities.

"It has been extremely difficult to work with the environmentalists," he said. Banig said UMWA had been involved in some talks in the past, but they usually begin with an offer of assistance to help mine workers retrain for another profession -- a nonstarter for a union devoted to the preservation of mining jobs.

"It's starting off the discussions by saying, 'OK, you're going to agree to lose your job,'" he said.

While many unions including the steelworkers and IBEW supported the 2009 House climate change bill, UMWA did not. Still, Banig said miners know that environmental issues including climate change are not going to go away and delaying them only creates more uncertainty within in the industry.

"We have to deal with them in such a way that keeps our members working, in this depressed economy, creates a tremendous amount of jobs in areas of the country that, quite frankly, have been depressed for quite some time," Banig said.

The union's solution is hefty investment in CCS, perhaps through a small voluntary fee on coal-fired utilities that would go to help fund CCS projects, as proposed in the last Congress by former Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.)

Environmentalists argue that without a steady stream of revenue -- like the one that would have been created by the cap-and-trade bill -- CCS is too expensive to be practical.

But Banig said he does not understand that point of view.

"If you're really concerned about climate, why you would not want to develop this technology as quickly as possible?" he said. "Because the world's going to continue to use coal."

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