Let's Race to the Top

President Obama deserves kudos for the plan he put forth last week to put Americans back to work and renew our nation's role as a global leader in innovation. I was glad to hear him renew his commitments to protecting Americans from toxic mercury pollution, ending subsidies for Big Oil, and building a clean energy economy that works for all Americans.

The president is right that it's time to "stop the political circus" and act. Whether it's investment in wind and solar power, improving and repairing infrastructure, or building high-speed rail and electric cars, the federal government has an important role to play in putting Americans back to work and protecting the health and safety of families and children.

But Obama's challenge now is to stand up to the fossil fuel industry and its supporters in Congress who are misleading the American public by insisting that regulation kills jobs, and that a clean-energy future isn't viable. That's the "race to the bottom" the president mentioned in his speech.

For instance, the American Petroleum Institute recently claimed that the oil industry could create more than a million jobs over the next decade -- if only the government would open public lands, beaches, oceans -- probably even our bathtubs, if we let them -- to unlimited oil drilling.

This is preposterous. Dumping more money in Big Oil's deep pockets would be great for oil executives but do nothing for the rest of us. A recent report by Democratic staff of the House Natural Resources Committee clarifies Big Oil's role in our fragile economy:

  • Despite generating $546 billion in profits between 2005 and 2010, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and BP combined reduced their U.S. workforce by 11,200 employees.
  • Even with these job losses, the top five oil companies paid their senior executives a total of nearly $220 million in 2010.
  • Meanwhile, taxpayers will hand out nearly $100 billion in tax breaks and loopholes to oil and gas companies in the coming decades.

Big Oil is taking shots at the green economy because it threatens their unrivaled political and economic power. A report by the Brookings Institute -- which, unlike the API, doesn't exist solely to lobby for the oil industry -- is anything but pessimistic about the green economy's potential for job creation. "Sizing the Clean Economy: A National and Regional Green Jobs Assessment" concludes that:

  • Today the clean economy employs 2.7 million American workers across a diverse group of industries, which is greater than the number of people employed by the entire fossil fuel industry.
  • Clean-tech has produced explosive job gains in the past year, outperforming the national rate of job creation during the recession.
  • The clean economy offers more opportunities and better pay (13% higher) for low- and middle-skilled workers than the national economy as a whole.
  • The green jobs revolution is at work around the nation -- the South has the largest number of clean economy jobs in total, while the West has the largest share relative to its population.

Our nation is poised to enter an era where we can take it for granted that protecting public health and providing stable and sustainable jobs are one and the same. The writing's on the wall, which is exactly why Big Oil (seeing a threat to its domination of American economics and politics), has turned its attention (and devoted significant resources) to trying to stop growth in the clean economy.

In the end, the whole "jobs versus environment/public health" argument is nothing but a rhetorical crutch for polluters. The sooner we (and the media) call them on their B.S., the sooner we can win the "race to the top" for all Americans.