The climate movement must be rooted in the labor movement. Otherwise we get individualistic solutions that throw workers under the bus and only grant reliable, green energy to those who can afford to pay for it.
Texas is a preview of our climate future: fossil fuel capital hunkering down and waging war on workers; patchwork, small-is-beautiful attempts at a solution; and heavy reliance on the same market-based approach that created the crisis in the first place.
Beating the drum about the reality of climate change will not be enough to change course. Nor will spreading awareness. We need a labor-based climate movement that targets fossil fuel capital, fights for large-scale, democratically controlled energy, and improves the lives of workers.
This goes beyond advocating a just transition for workers. As Ryan Pollock, a lead organizer at IBEW Local 520 in Austin, told me: “It’s not enough for people to say this is what could happen, that this will be here in the future. It needs to be tangible or else nobody’s gonna believe you.”
We need to build a class-rooted movement capable of winning our demands. That starts with showing up to ongoing fights like those in Texas.
Fossil Fuel Companies’ War Against Workers
For much of the pandemic, before the surge in gas prices, the US oil and gas industry was flagging. But it was workers, not owners, who paid the price. In 2020 alone, Texas shed an estimated 60,000-plus oil and gas jobs. The vast majority of those affected were people who worked directly in the oilfields.
While these workers and their families were dealing with unemployment, fossil fuel companies were pocketing billions in tax handouts. According to Bailout Watch, Houston’s National Oilwell Varco alone received $591 million in tax benefits and still fired 22 percent of its workforce.
These companies don’t just cast their workers aside when times are hard — they rely on the public to clean up the environmental mess they make. Across Texas, abandoned wells dot the landscape. When left unplugged, methane escapes into the air. Oil ruins drinking water, and when improperly sealed, wells can explode. Companies are legally responsible for corking the wells and pay an upfront fee. However, this fee is not large enough to foot the full cost and, in the case of bankruptcy, this responsibility falls on the state. The profits of the boom-and-bust cycle are private, but the costs are socialized.
The Texas Railroad Commission says there are around seven thousand abandoned wells in Texas. A joint study by Texas Observer and Grist estimates that another thirteen thousand wells will be abandoned in the coming years, and the cleanup for these wells alone could cost Texans $1 billion. That’s not including the environmental fallout — estimates for a comprehensive cleanup run as high as $117 billion.
Yet fossil fuel companies haven’t been satisfied with raking in profits at workers’ and the planet’s expense. They have also waged a protracted war against organized labor. In Beaumont, Texas, ExxonMobil has ferociously targeted the eighty-year-old steelworkers union, USW Local 13-243.
During contract negotiations last year, ExxonMobil proposed a wage freeze and eliminating seniority rights for certain workers. When the union pushed back, the company took the drastic step of locking out workers to block a potential strike. The lockout began in May 2021. It lasted ten months. Workers ultimately voted to accept ExxonMobil’s offer, which, among other losses, conceded “control of all job assignments.” Adding to the tension of the lockout, the company backed a union decertification campaign. The six-hundred-member local narrowly fought it off, prevailing by a vote of 258 to 229.
The recent surge in gas prices has left fossil fuel companies even more flush with cash. While conservatives like Texas governor Greg Abbott have blamed the Biden administration for allegedly pushing “Green New Deal policies,” Big Oil isn’t suffering from overregulation. In March alone, over nine hundred drilling permits were distributed across Texas’s Permian Basin, courtesy of the Biden administration.
Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry has taken its record profits and paid off dividends to shareholders — instead of, say, rehiring the thousands of workers fired during the pandemic. At a time when millions of people are struggling to afford the cost of getting to work, the oil and gas industry is making a strong argument as to why private financial interests should have no place in how we power our society.
As Matt Huber points out, banks have trillions invested in fossil fuels, and they expect to see returns. It will “take the exertion of mass social power to halt these investments, not simply awareness of climate science.”
Oil and gas workers should therefore be a core constituency in the fight for a Green New Deal, one that offers them security, guaranteed wages, and a leading role in the energy transition. But to win them over, “just transition” needs to move from a line item on policy proposals to an active commitment to fighting alongside workers today.
Energy for the Rich
In February 2021, following Winter Storm Uri, Texas devolved into a predictable culture war over what had caused the state’s massive power outages. Conservatives blamed wind and solar for their purported unreliability. Liberals noted that it was natural gas pipelines that froze over. But neither got at the root of the problem.
While it’s true that the crisis in natural gas supply broke the state’s energy system, this failure was caused by a privatized model that puts profit over basic functionality. While many pipelines froze because they had not been properly weatherized, the ones that functioned raked in millions of dollars and the ones that froze were soon back up and running, resulting in a small loss in revenue for a few days.
It wasn’t the stupidity of pipeline owners that made them decide against weatherizing their pipelines, but instead their desire to make a buck. And the consequences were dire: millions of Texans were left without power, and hundreds died. Energy investors, meanwhile, raked in millions.
Despite public anger — millions of Texans faced unpayable electric bills in the wake of the storm — the state’s politicians have little interest in doing much about it. In fact, Governor Greg Abbott has been promoting Bitcoin mining — an environmentally wasteful and socially useless endeavor — as a solution to Texas’s beleaguered grid.
In the absence of political action, what are we left with? Individualism. In wealthy neighborhoods, homeowners are having household batteries and solar installed, almost always by nonunion labor. While no one can blame a person for wanting to ensure their lights don’t go out the next time the state faces an energy crisis, this is exactly the kind of personal solution to a collective problem that excludes poor and working-class people. It’s localized, boutique green power for the rich — and dirty, failing public power for the rest of us.
This model for building green power also relies heavily on tax credits, pulling money out of public coffers and directing them to capitalists. As Matt Huber and Fred Stafford argue, this creates an absurd choice: “either public ownership and pricier energy, or private ownership and cheaper energy.”
Decentralized power, even “green” decentralized power, has been used to undermine public power — most notably the Tennessee Valley Authority, which has recently been criticized by some in the climate movement. The TVA electrified the South in the 1930s, when private capital was uninterested in doing so, and remains an important source of energy.
Large-scale power projects like the TVA create more union employment, are more responsive to social needs than a swamp of competing private interests, and can deliver cheap power to working-class people in Texas and across the country. We should reject outright the private control of one of society’s most important industries.
Winning a Green Labor-Led Future
Texas is offering a glimpse of our future — and it’s a dystopian mess. From entrenched fossil-fuel companies exploiting workers, polluting the planet, and leaving the public with the cleanup bill to a rising green capitalist class whose financial interests are opposed to large-scale publicly controlled power, it’s clear there will be change, but not the change that is needed.
It’s not enough to just “do something” about climate change. As states like Texas increase their wind and solar capacity, we must ensure these jobs are unionized. We must support large-scale public power and a labor-led transition away from fossil fuels. We must oppose pushes by the wealthy to make powering one’s home an individualistic, market-based operation. And above all, we must target head-on, with a class-based politics, the private power that not only fails us but profits from that failure.
Climate change shouldn’t be a culture war issue. It should be about making sure everyone has the ability to live a safe and dignified life.
This work has been made possible by the support of the Puffin Foundation.