A bill introduced late last month by Vermont senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders could cost tens of thousands of IBEW jobs and cripple a natural gas industry fueling job growth across the entire U.S.
The issue played a key factor in the IBEW's endorsement earlier this month of his primary opponent, Vice President Joe Biden. "We agree on many things with Sen. Sanders. He's been a friend to the labor movement for years," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "But we couldn't sit idly by while he recklessly attacks the livelihoods of our members whose jobs could be gone overnight if he gets his way on natural gas."
At present, IBEW members work at nearly every stage of the natural gas industry, from extraction and processing to transportation, export, and consumption. Conservative estimates place the number of IBEW jobs at risk by Sanders' proposal in the tens of thousands. Moreover, America's energy supply depends on natural gas as a critical bridge fuel until the technology and economics of renewables can close the gap between supply and demand. In 2018, natural gas plants accounted for 35.2% of total U.S. energy output. In Nevada, one of the earliest presidential primary contests, natural gas plants produce a whopping 69% of the state's energy supply.
The benefits of natural gas to the utility industry are immense. Unlike other baseload sources, natural gas plants can be switched on and off at a moment's notice, adding or removing huge amounts of power to the grid to meet consumer demand. Renewables like wind and solar create power when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining, not necessarily when demand is needed. That requires the flexibility of gas until grid-scale storage can be built nationwide. "Our focus is the reliability and resiliency of the power grid, and natural gas allows us the flexibility to add renewables to the energy mix," said Utility Department Director Donnie Colston. "To suggest that we could flip a switch overnight and make the leap to an all-renewable energy supply is just fantasy."
Sixty-five thousand utility members work in the gas industry at generating stations and in residential and commercial distribution. Natural gas also accounts for 50% of the home heating in the U.S. But that doesn't paint the entire picture. The IBEW's construction branch relies on the natural gas industry for millions of man-hours of work each year. Beaver, Pa., Local 712 is in the midst of a natural gas gold rush, fueled by the nearby Marcellus and Utica shale gas fields, said Business Manager Frank Telesz. The Shell Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex under construction there has already employed 1,500 electricians, and Telesz said he expects 500 more before the project goes operational next year. Spinoff projects, long-term maintenance agreements and more will keep the region's electricians at work for decades.