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Martin Tillier

Martin Tillier

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The Fossil Fuel Industry May Not Help the Planet, But It Employs Millions

The Fossil Fuel Industry May Not Help the Planet, But It Employs Millions

The energy debate, particularly in the U.S., is polarized. Some see fossil fuel industries as the enemy, in their pursuit of ever-increasing profits at the expense of the planet. Others ignore or even deny the widely accepted view that oil, gas and coal are negatively impacting our environment every day.

Whichever side you are on, there is one basic fact that cannot be ignored: Fossil fuels account for a huge number of jobs, both in the U.S. and globally.

In this argument, though, even the numbers are hotly debated. At the end of 2012, for example, when IHS Global Insights released a report claiming that at that time unconventional oil and gas extraction (primarily hydraulic fracturing) alone accounted for 1.7 million American jobs and would account for 3 million by the end of the decade, their motives and methods were quickly called into question by environmentalists.

There are fundamentally two problems with such reports and with assessing the employment impact of conventional energy.

First, what criteria should be used to calculate jobs attributable to the oil, gas and coal industries? Should we just include employment in the actual extraction facilities or should we broaden it to include support jobs? What about the accountants and lawyers who specialize in the field, or gas truck delivery drivers? What about those employed by the automotive industry? Should we, as HIS attempted to do, account for retail and other manufacturing jobs supported as those employed directly spend their money?

The second problem is simpler. As Baseball Hall of Famer Casey Stengel once memorably told us, we should never make predictions, particularly about the future. Any number of outside factors could influence the overall economy in the next few years, and therefore, jobs in the energy sector.

The only honest thing to do, it seems, is to look at the most recent historical data. Global numbers for employment in conventional energy are not available, but estimates range from four million to forty million or more. If that range seems wide, see the above paragraph, and if the upper end of the range seems high, keep in mind that the Chinese oil company Sinopec alone employs over 1 million people.

There are, though, reliable figures for the U.S., so let’s concentrate on those. The Bureau of Labor Statistics breaks down employment by sector in their Current Employment Statistics. I have taken a narrow approach and included only those directly employed by oil, gas and coal companies and in direct support or supply of their products. Even using those restricted criteria, the fossil fuel business employed over 2 million people in America alone as of the end of May 2014.

Calculated number
*Calculated number; breakdown for coal only not available. Coal accounts for 36.9% of mining jobs and total mining support jobs are 426,900. 36.9% of that number is 157,500.
** May include some non-coal mining machinery

Related Article: The World’s 10 Most Energy-Efficient Cities

Employment in the fossil fuel industries in the U.S is significant and, as shown by the U.S. Energy Information Administration chart below, growing rapidly. The increase in production of oil and gas has, it seems, provided much of the impetus for recovery from the 2008 financial collapse.

Change in Employment 


There is no doubt in my mind that there are risks to the rapid expansion of oil and gas extraction in America, and to the country’s continued dependence on fossil fuels, both in terms of environmental damage and the diversion of resources away from research into the alternative energy sources that will be needed in the future.

When considering those risks, however, we should remember that over 2 million people (and in many cases their families) directly depend on those industries for their livelihood. That level of employment cannot be ignored.

By Martin Tillier of Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • rusti on July 10 2014 said:
    I agree with your concluding paragraphs for the most part, but find the "but jobs!" argument is completely without merit. As with any new technology ever, obsolete jobs will disappear and new ones will be created. The important thing is to try and develop a humane system to make the transition as painless as possible and invest heavily in people of all ages so they can learn new skills. However this is not something the US has found the political willpower to do since the Carter/Reagan years.

    Two million new jobs could easily be created for researchers, development engineers, product installers, manufacturers, technicians, entrepreneurs and a million other administrative roles working with more "Green friendly" technologies. Speaking as someone employed in the automotive industry, the vast majority of us could easily transition to working with electrified drive trains instead.

    Oil is a particularly terrible "job creator" and that has been part of the reason for its dominance for the past hundred years. I suggest that the author read Columbia University Professor Timothy Mitchell's "Carbon Democracy" to understand this relationship more fully.
  • delmar Jackson on July 11 2014 said:
    I have never talked to a single person who disliked fossil fuels who wanted a reduction in immigration to the USA. Our increase in the need for fuel is driven directly by the increase in population, driven almost entirely by immigration.
    At the same time, people who want to save the planet from global warming, completely dismiss the insanity of importing millions of people from some of the lowest carbon footprint countries to the western countries that have the highest carbon footprint and increasing the population of the high footprint countries. And finally, you have open border cheap labor zealots like David Gelbaum bribe the sierra Club with 100 million dollars to never mention the effects of immigration on the environment ever again.
    imagine if big oil gave the sierra club 100 million to never talk about fossil fuels again.
    I will start worrying about fossil fuels and 'big oil" when I see the media start worrying about " big immigration."
  • Lee James on April 15 2016 said:
    This year, I'm seeing an encouraging trend in articles that make comparisons between jobs in the fossil fuel industry and renewable energy. Comparisons are tricky, but some results publicized in the press have renewables coming out ahead.

    An example is Citizen Climate Lobby's laser talk sheet:


    The comparison here is jobs per $1m energy-output, from each class of energy. Per $1m generated, renewable energy jobs are many more.

    Of course, we need to pay attention to whether an author is talking direct jobs, indirect jobs, supply chain or some combination of jobs that make up a "job pyramid."

    My view is that even though total direct 2016 renewable energy jobs in the U.S. are less today than analogous direct jobs in fossil fuels, the trend is much in favor of renewable energy, and clean jobs are the ones that are right for our future.
  • This Idiot wants to destroy the planet on April 02 2017 said:
    You want to kill the planet you idiot you think you are going to trick people by putting up a few graphs and trying to act smart. Duke University put out a study showing that natural gas, solar, and wind power combined have created four times the amount of jobs in recent years that coal has lost. If you don't believe me look it up its on their website so stop lying you idiot coal is more expensive (also look that up its true), has less jobs, and destroys the environment. People like you are what is wrong with our society.

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