Dean Baker had a bit of a press-beating flub the other day with this annoying NYT analysis piece on the oil spill, in which Jad Mouawad’s slightly buried lede was, “The country needs the oil — and the jobs.” Baker does OK on the oil part of the claim, and resists the temptation to liken the “need” for oil to certain individuals’ needs for their addictive drug of choice, but not so much on the jobs.
An accompanying info-graphic says that oil and gas exploration and production in the Gulf of Mexico employs about 35,000 people. I might think that’s big because the blotch of oil surrounding the jobs number is bigger than the blotch surrounding the 1.7 million barrel/day production figure. But the former is 0.02 percent of U.S. employment whereas the latter is roughly a third of U.S. crude oil production (though that’s a bit less than a tenth of consumption; plus the Gulf makes a decent contribution to the U.S. natural gas supply). It’s a productivity miracle! Along the same lines, EIA data show that U.S. coal production employed 86,859 nationwide in 2008 to extract 1.17 billion tons of coal. So there’s about 0.5 coal miners per U.S. city delivery letter carrier.
Clearly, fossil energy employment can do things like strain housing resources in places like Athabasca and North Dakota which have the feature of being remote and mostly empty ex-boom. Otherwise, if we were really serious about needing the jobs, then transforming the economy to get rid of the fossil fuel consumption would be a far better jobs program than increasing domestic energy production. Big programs like electrifying ground transportation, building thousands of megawatts of renewable electricity generation capacity and the systems to turn it into reliable electric supply would involve trillion-dollar-class investments, and it’s basically impossible to spend a trillion dollars actually doing stuff (as opposed to shuffling around data representing money) without creating millions of jobs.