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American unions increasingly recognize the threat of climate change to workers and their communities. Yet some unions continue to promote programs like Alaska’s Willow Project that violate the basic requirement of climate safety: that fossil fuel extraction and burning must be subject to a rapid, managed decline. Fortunately, they are not the only voices in the labor movement. 

On March 21 retired members from over 30 international unions rallied, marched, and demonstrated for climate protection. They stated, “Science tells us we have to stop burning fossil fuels and cut emissions by 50% in the next seven years or face climate disasters far worse than we are already experiencing.” They called for a stop to “all new investment in fossil fuel expansion, including production, infrastructure, and exploration,” and for funds to be redirected to “projects that will build renewable energy infrastructure and meet the other needs of our communities, especially workers and their families who are negatively impacted either directly or indirectly by the transition away from fossil fuels.”[1] These union veterans may be aging, but if the labor movement is to have a future it had better listen to what they have to say.

Just days before, the Biden administration had announced approval of ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project, the largest fossil fuel extraction project on federal lands in history. It is expected to produce five hundred and seventy-five million barrels of oil over the next thirty years. Burning that oil will result in the emission of about ten million tons of carbon dioxide per year, or some three hundred million tons over the life of the project.[2] The project will wipe out the emissions cuts provided by all renewable energy developments over the next decade, adding the equivalent of two million new gasoline cars to the roads.[3]

Biden approves controversial oil drilling project in Alaska | Author: CBC News: The National | Watch the video »

When the union climate protectors said to stop “all new investment in fossil fuel expansion,” there’s nothing that could have applied to more clearly than the Willow Project. And yet, other parts of the labor movement have been presenting labor as that project’s enthusiastic advocate.

Joelle Hall of the Alaska AFL-CIO said, “100% of Alaska’s unions are in support of the Willow Project.” Sean McGarvey, President of the North America’s Building Trades Unions, said, “North America’s Building Trades Unions are strongly committed to the Willow Project.” The reasons he gave were “the benefits to our nation’s energy security and the over 1,600 middle-class, family-sustaining union jobs this project will provide.”[4] President Kenneth Cooper of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers said the Willow Project will provide “significant employment opportunities for IBEW members in Alaska while enhancing domestic oil production, benefitting the state’s economy and local residents.” He added, “IBEW members are dedicated to the Biden administration’s climate goals. This project will help improve America’s energy security along the path to a low-carbon future.”[5] Perhaps “War Is Peace” and “Slavery Is Freedom” should now be augmented with “Carbon Production is Carbon Reduction.”

The very day after President Biden announced approval of the Willow Project, the IPCC, the world’s most authoritative voice of climate science, released its latest report. It found that deep, rapid and sustained greenhouse gas emission reductions across all sectors will be necessary; global emissions will need to be slashed almost in half by 2030. Releasing the report, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said nations “must stop expanding oil and gas production, begin phasing out existing fossil fuels, and reach clean electricity by 2035 for developed countries.” Sounding as if he were directly condemning the Willow Project, he called in particular for:

  • Ceasing all licensing or funding of new oil and gas.
  • Stopping any expansion of existing oil and gas reserves.
  • Establishing a global phase down of existing oil and gas production compatible with the 2050 global net zero target.[6]

The Willow Project directly violates these necessary conditions for avoiding the worst aspects of climate disaster. It similarly directly violates President Biden’s own climate goals. An analysis by the Center for American Progress finds that the carbon emissions expected from Willow would cancel out the carbon reductions in the president’s goals of deploying 30 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind energy by 2030 and permitting 25 GW of solar, onshore wind, and geothermal energy on public lands by 2025. The Willow project will double the carbon pollution that all renewable progress on public lands and waters would avoid by 2030.[7] If, as IBEW president Kenneth Cooper says, “IBEW members are dedicated to the Biden administration’s climate goals,” their leaders should be opposing, not supporting the Willow Project.

According to Building Trades leader Sean McGarvey, the Willow Project will create “1,600 middle-class, family-sustaining union jobs.” Historically such job estimates, for example on the Keystone XL pipeline, have been wildly exaggerated. While for workers every job is important, the need of American workers for jobs can be far better realized by the approach advocated by our climate-protecting labor elders: redirecting funds to “projects that will build renewable energy infrastructure and meet the other needs of our communities, especially workers and their families who are negatively impacted either directly or indirectly by the transition away from fossil fuels.”[8]

Other benefits claimed for the Willow Project are also questionable. While it is often claimed that it will add to energy security in the crisis growing out of the war in Ukraine, in fact the Willow Project will not deliver its first barrel until 2028 or 2029. Nor will it have much impact on oil prices. Running at peak capacity it might lower global oil prices —  currently $75 per barrel — by twenty cents.[9] Despite the claims that the Willow Project will boost Alaska’s economy, according to the Alaska Department of Revenue the project will not become “cash flow positive” for the state until 2035.[10]

Then there is the human dimension. At an event she organized to promote the Willow Project, Senator Murkowski said, “This is about empowerment for Alaska Native people.” Some indigenous groups in Alaska have supported the Willow Project. However, those most directly affected have been fighting it. The Alaska Native Village of Nuiqsut will be virtually surrounded by oil fields, threatening the subsistence hunting and fishing that has long sustained the town’s households. Nuiqsut’s mayor has been vocally opposed to the Willow project, and local tribal leaders passed a resolution opposing it.[11]

The retired union members who rallied, marched, and demonstrated for climate protection pose questions for all of us in the labor movement. As organized labor, who are we? Are we just another special interest group, ready to sacrifice the public good – or even human survival – for a mess of pottage? Are we willing to let the enablers of climate suicide be the voice of labor? Studies show that union members are more concerned about climate, more persuaded that climate change is real, and more likely to advocate for climate policies than the public as a whole.[12] It’s time for organized labor’s “climate silent majority” to speak for itself.

[1] Bob Muehlenkamp, “Retired Union Members Across the U.S. Join Third Act, say ‘Keep Fossil Fuels in the Ground,’ ” Portside, March 16, 2023.

[2]  Elizabeth Kolbert, “Why Did the Biden Administration Approve the Willow Project?” The New Yorker, March 13, 2023.

[3] Jenny Rowland-Shea, “The Biden Administration’s Easiest Climate Win Is Waiting in the Arctic”. Center for American Progress, March 3, 2023.

[4] ICYMI: Alaska Native and Union Leaders Join Delegation to Urge Re-Approval of Willow Project, U.S. Senator for Alaska Lisa Murkowski,  March 3, 2023.

[5] Matt Spence, “IBEW Statement on Biden Administrations Approval of the Willow Project.” IBEW Media Center, March 14, 2023.

[6] “Secretary-General’s video message for press conference to launch the Synthesis Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” United Nations Secretary General, March 20, 2023.

[7] Jenny Rowland-Shea, Ibid.

[8] ICYMI, Ibid.

[9] Zoya Teirstein & Jake Bittle, “The dubious economic calculus behind the Willow project,” Grist, March 16, 2023.

[10]“Willow Project Fiscal Analysis, State of Alaska Department of Revenue.

[11] Zoya Teirstein & Jake Bittle, Ibid.

[12] Jeremy Brecher and Todd Vachon, “Poll Shows Union Members Support the Green New Deal Nearly Three to One,” Labor Network for Sustainability, August 29, 2019. and Todd Vachon, “Sociologist Finds Labor and Environmental Protection Linked,” Labor Network for Sustainability, March 30, 2019.