President Obama's 2009 economic stimulus program—the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA)—represented a dramatic forward advance on the issue of jobs and the environment. The ARRA included roughly $100 billion in clean energy investments as part of the overall $787 billion two-year measure. The ARRA also embraced the concept that green investments could serve as a significant new engine of job opportunities throughout the economy. This idea directly contradicted the long-dominant view that the goals of environmental sustainability and job creation were inevitably and painfully at odds.
Over the past two years, and especially since the 2012 election season began, the level of mainstream political support for the green investment agenda has eroded substantially, while the traditional position—that economic policies can protect the environment or expand job opportunities but can't do both at once—has regained traction. According to the revived traditional view, the government has wasted tens of billions of taxpayers' dollars on dubious "green jobs" programs, and it is now time to return to what we know works—that is, generating energy by burning oil, coal, and
natural gas, supplemented by nuclear power. This means tearing down the existing barriers, environmental or otherwise, that have been [End Page 84] stifling the traditional energy sectors. Mitt Romney is running hard on this line while President Obama has retreated markedly from his previous support for a green investments/jobs agenda.
Three main factors are driving this reversal on jobs and the environment. The most important is the perception that the $100 billion green stimulus program failed to deliver the jobs it promised. If the green jobs agenda was successful, why is the unemployment rate stuck so high?
Renewable energy is also increasingly seen as being impractical. The big story here was the bankruptcy, in September 2011, of Solyndra, the Northern California-based manufacturer of solar panels. Solyndra had received $535 million in federal loan guarantees through the Obama stimulus program only two years prior to declaring bankruptcy.
A final factor has been the widely touted projections of huge new supplies of cheap oil and natural gas from within the United States itself and Canada. These new supplies would come from two main sources. One is oil extracted from tar sands in Northern Alberta, then transported to U.S. refineries via the proposed Keystone Pipeline, which would run through the U.S. heartland down to the Gulf of Mexico. The other is natural gas supplies deposited in shale rock formations running from West Virginia to upstate New York. The gas embedded in these shale formations is released through the recently-developed technique of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," of the shale.
These matters need to also be framed within a larger context, encompassing two fundamental realities about the world today. The first is that the entire globe faces a potential ecological disaster over the next generation if we do not take effective action to dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions generated by burning fossil fuels. The other is that the U.S. and most of the rest of the advanced economies are still experiencing the most severe employment crisis since the 1930s Depression. These realities mean that we now hardly have the luxury of choosing either jobs or the environment. If at all possible, we need to figure out how to advance a unified agenda for full employment and ecological sanity. But has the experience over the past few years shown that this is not possible?
The Arra, Green Investments, and Jobs
The clean energy agenda includes energy efficiency measures such as building retrofits, public transportation, and a "smart grid" electricity transmission system; and renewable energy investments in the solar, wind, and geothermal industries. The money spent on these projects did create jobs, pretty much exactly as anticipated. There are a lot of
technical challenges in trying to pin down one overarching set of accurate figures here. But considering only projects within the Department of Energy itself, the best estimate is that about two hundred thousand one-year-long jobs (or their equivalent over [End Page 85] longer time...