Workers at Cardiff Mine disaster, 1913 (photo: Library of Congress)

Whenever we have debates about whether to approve more oil drilling, or more coal mountain-top removal, or another coal plant, the arguments always come down to jobs.  The advocates of the project tell us how many jobs will be involved in the construction or extraction processes or operating the plants.  And the opponents are left to argue over whether the jobs numbers are exaggerated, or whether they’re only temporary instead of permanent, or comparative macroeconomic effects.

So it’s not surprising that the advocates of the Keystone XL Pipeline and related tar sands oil development have bussed in lots of supposed pipeline construction and oil workers to argue at the State Department hearings on the Environmental Impact Statement for why the project should go forward and why it’s in America’s national interest. It will create jobs and allow us to use less oil from bad places

Opponents sometimes find these arguments difficult to counter; you don’t want to argue against someone’s job.   Both sides then offer expert studies on how many jobs would be created by the proposed activities.  These efforts are fine and worth doing, I suppose, but I think they miss the broader picture.

We have an economy whose annual GDP is about $15 trillion.  We use enormous amounts of energy, of all types, probably more than any other nation.  In an economy as large as ours that relies on energy as much as ours, there will always be a large number of jobs that depend on the industries that provide that energy.

So of course, any large fossil energy source, whether it’s coal or oil or natural gas, will employ lots of people.  Large projects to extract, refine, transport and market those carbon fossil products will each provide many jobs.

But exactly the same is true of renewable energy industries like solar, wind, geothermal and even more so for energy efficiency endeavors.  There are plenty of studies showing that if we directed more of the nation’s wealth towards solar and wind and energy efficiency efforts, those too would create and sustain large numbers of jobs.  And doing the right thing is a terrific investment.

When you generate electricity from wind or solar power, you need to generate less electricity from coal or natural gas.   You need less coal and less gas to be extracted and transported.  And making our homes and offices more energy efficient takes lots of labor, but the resulting efficiency improvements also mean using less energy generated from coal and natural gas.  All of these “alternative energy” efforts create and require hundreds of thousands of jobs.  And those jobs are growing and growing fast.

So the question has never been whether we should extract more carbon from oil or coal or gas to provide jobs, because providing enough energy for this country will always provide lots of jobs.  Always.

The jobs question is, and always has been, whether we want those jobs building safer, cleaner, renewable energy technologies and efficiency improvements, or we want only jobs extracting, refining and burning dirtier, harmful, carbon-based energy sources.

We’re going to have plenty of energy jobs — hundreds of thousands of them — either way.  It just depends on where we focus our money and efforts and what we want the consequences of our choices to be.  But one way, the smart way, we get clean, renewable sources that don’t destroy the environment or the health of our children and elderly, and they rescue the planet from catastrophic global climate change . . .  and the other way we get environmentally destructive extraction, unsafe industries, unhealthy communities with huge health care costs and a heated up, endangered planet.

The comparative job numbers are interesting, but you don’t really need them to decide the smart thing to do.  It’s a fairly simple, no-brainer of a choice, once you understand what the real choice is all about.