One Big Hurdle for a San Diego Gas Ban: Union Labor

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The city of San Diego is about to drop its latest plan to fight climate change, but local unions representing natural gas industry workers fear it could cost them jobs.

Across the state, cities are trying to dump gas and demand that buildings be equipped to run solely on electricity for all energy needs, including heating and cooking. And union representatives are paying attention.

In short, they worry that the trend could mean more work for electricians and less work for those who dig trenches or lay and maintain gas pipes.

“It’s not just a pipeline, it’s a lifeline,” said Joe Cruz, executive director of the California State Council of Laborers, which represents the workers who do heavy digging to lay pipes. “(Natural gas) creates many well-paid jobs. The natural gas ban and decarbonization efforts in California will have a major impact on workers across the state, including San Diego if that moves forward.

Employees of the City of San Diego’s Department of Sustainability and Mobility know that the city must somehow reduce global warming from buildings — 20 percent of the city’s emissions in 2019 came from using natural gas in homes and businesses. But the city is moving more slowly than, say, San Francisco, where provincial regulators banned natural gas in new buildings last year.

As San Diego works on a potential plan, staffers are aware of the livelihoods associated with the industry and have hired the same consultants San Francisco County used before adopting its policy to study the potential impact on the workforce.

“These are not just jobs, but people and their families,” said Alyssa Muto, director of sustainability and mobility for the City of San Diego.

San Diego, like Encinitas, could decide to equip new buildings to power everything — including stoves, water heaters, air conditioning and heating. But the growth of new construction is slow and accounts for only one percent of the building stock per year. Most of the gas infrastructure is located in existing buildings.

The city can be aggressive and require adjustments so that buildings run entirely on electricity instead of gas. Or the city could give natural gas another chance as part of its next climate action plan and focus instead on making buildings more energy efficient.

“I don’t know that building electrification has to be the lever, but you have to somehow get emissions out of the buildings,” said Ashley Rosia-Tremonti, program manager in San Diego’s sustainability division.

Unions representing gas workers argue that relying solely on electrifying California’s buildings is the wrong answer to the climate crisis.

“We want (policy makers) to put online other affordable, safe and convenient forms of energy that ordinary people can trust before they decide to shut down the natural gas industry,” Cruz said.

He means alternative fuels such as so-called renewable natural gas and hydrogen energy. Hydrogen is a carbon-free fuel that can be mixed with natural gas to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but the technology is only slowly penetrating the US market. San Diego Gas and Electric, owned by a leading liquefied natural gas exporter Sempra, recently announced efforts to ramp up production of these alternative fuels to offset the emissions the company generates, a popular climate policy target of “net zero.” ‘ is called.

Gas unions view these new technologies as guaranteed jobs, with workers converting natural gas-fired power plants to run on hydrogen or building new hydrogen plants, said Sean Ellis, an organizer for the local union of 230 pipe fitters in San Diego.

“The time to pick a winner and a loser here is long gone,” Ellis said. “If we want to take the fight against climate seriously, we need to have all options on the table.”

This puts local unions at odds with environmentalists who see anything less than electrification as strategies to conserve fossil fuels.

“It becomes important for us, as climate justice advocates, to work with our friends in the work to find the right solution and ensure that no one is left behind in this transition,” said Mat Vasilakis, co-director of the Climate Action Campaign . “But we need to get rid of the methane gas infrastructure if we want a climate-secure and prepared future.”

But if San Diego goes electric, it could end jobs for a group of union workers, while opening up new opportunities for workers represented by another union.

That’s because union workers—whether gas, electric, or plumbing workers—are trained and certified for a specific type of work. This is partly how unions try to distribute work fairly among the construction industry.

“That eliminates the Laborers’ ability to provide energy when you electrify purely,” Cruz said. “Electricians are authorized, especially in California, to make wire connections. A worker cannot perform that function. It requires certification.”

Unions representing San Diego’s electrical workers, IBEW 569 and 465, declined to comment on this story.

This series of pipes is part of the North City Pure Water Facility, an installation that converts wastewater into drinking water. / Photo by Megan Wood

Unions in the energy sector around the world are fighting for a so-called “just transition” of the labor force as countries try to curb climate change: If policymakers take away gas work, they should help those workers find other jobs – the ones that pay and the same quality of work. life or to close the pay gap with public money.

“The challenge here is that both policymakers and union leaders are really trying to figure out how to thread the needle on an actual just transition,” said Carol Kim, business manager for the San Diego Building Trades Council, which represents unions of this sometimes-competitive trade. “The problem is environmental policies are passed before that stuff is put in place.”

A growing job sector in Southern California could be a bridge: water.

Plumbers and pipe fitters withdrew as San Francisco County banned natural gas in new buildings until policymakers compromised. Supervisors agreed to make more piping by imposing new requirements for water recycling, such as a where large buildings have to treat and reuse their own wastewater, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

San Diego also has a lot of pipe-related work going on in the future. The city’s stormwater system, which controls where the water goes after it hits the ground by rain, will need about $1.27 billion in repairs over the next five years. San Diego is also building a multi-billion dollar wastewater recycling system called Pure Water. And there is a hitherto uncalculated amount of work to prepare the city’s water infrastructure to handle climate-induced sea level rise.

Ellis, of the Pipe Fitters’ Union, acknowledged that workers could be retrained to do different types of pipe projects, but said it’s not that simple.

“You’re essentially asking someone in their 40s to go back to school and retrain and educate themselves, and then get a pay cut,” he said.

[Disclosure: Mitch Mitchell, SDG&E’s vice president of state governmental affairs and external affairs, is a member of Voice of San Diego’s board]

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