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How Green is Thy Stimulus?

Author: Toni Johnson
February 16, 2009

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The Obama administration hopes money spent to stimulate the economy out of recession can do double duty by advancing its green agenda. Along with congressional Democrats, the administration infused the stimulus bill with initiatives meant to create "green jobs" that President Obama says will include "building the wind turbines and solar panels and fuel-efficient cars that will lower our dependence on foreign oil." But debate exists about what constitutes a green job and what economic impact these jobs will have.

Economists, labor experts, corporate strategists, environmentalists, and journalists all struggle with the concept. "We can't have an intelligent conversation about something if we don't know what it is," noted the Columbia Journalism Review in an examination of the many definitions of "green jobs." Among the widest definitions as outlined, a green job is one that contributes over time to decreasing energy consumption, lowering oil demand, and switching to renewable and low-emission fuels. Lucy Blake, chief executive of the Apollo Alliance, a coalition of environmental groups, labor unions, and politicians, defines a green-collar job as "a blue-collar job that has been upgraded to address the environmental challenges of our country" (NYT). But beyond obvious jobs such as wind-farm tech, they are tricky to categorize. Does a miner who extracts the coke that makes steel for a wind turbine qualify as a green-collar worker (Newsweek)? What about the construction crews excavating the planned second rail tunnel under the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey?  Or a conductor on a diesel train? The list of occupations that might raise objections from one quarter or another--nuclear plant operator, ethanol producer--seems endless.

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The ultimate impact of many green jobs also raises hackles. Business journalist David Leonhardt reports that experts believe "the only way to create huge numbers of clean-energy jobs would be to raise the cost of dirty energy sources" (NYT). The Institute for Energy Research, which promotes market-oriented solutions, argues that recent studies by its green-minded rivals at the Center for American Progress (PDF) that trumpet the idea of green jobs fail to account (PDF) for the existing jobs in mining, oil, transportation, and other sectors that such policies will destroy.

The Obama administration pledges to create millions of jobs with its energy and stimulus plans. It remains to be seen how many of them will be anyone's definition of green (Salon). More generally, pushing an environmental agenda that reorders the U.S. energy economy may have unexpected energy security and environmental implications. Confusion over the direction of U.S. greenhouse-gas regulation has paralyzed investment in new power production using coal (Star- Tribune). This, in turn, stymies the development of technologies aimed at lowering coal's carbon footprint. Meanwhile, materials such as lithium (PDF) and cobalt used in the manufacture of batteries for rechargeable vehicles are largely sourced outside the United States. An increase in battery manufacturing could prompt a shift from oil dependence to a new type of resource dependence. Companies are already looking to lock up access (NYT) in lithium-rich countries such as Chile and Bolivia.

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