What Could a Worker-Focused Just Transition Look Like?

A conversation with Megan, James, & Clarke — current and former workers in the oil industry — on the need to build a more ecologically sustainable economy. This conversation was recorded on September 15, 2022.

By Maximillian Alvarez

 

 

The term “degrowth” gets thrown around a lot, and it can mean wildly different things to different people. To some, it’s a dirty word describing a future of brute-forced austerity that would translate to tremendous losses in jobs and economic stability for working people as societies race to cut back economic production to ward off the worst effects of climate change. To others, “degrowth” might mean the reduction of operations in the most environmentally destructive industries, like oil and gas, while targeting investment and job growth in other areas, like building green infrastructure, environmental cleanup efforts, sustainable farming, and so on. But what is perennially frustrating about a lot of these discussions is that, as is so often the case, you rarely get to hear what working people on the ground have to say. That is why it was such an honor for me to speak to Megan Milliken Biven, James Hiatt, and Clarke for this interview about what a worker-centered transition to a more ecologically sustainable economy could look like.

Megan used to work for the Federal Government in the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, before, as she says, she “went rogue” and founded True Transition, an organization that focuses on speaking directly to oil and gas workers throughout the United States about their working conditions, their training and compensation needs, and their hopes for tomorrow’s industries. Megan and the folks at True Transition are working to help create the kind of good-paying jobs and get workers the kind of training they need to transition to a sustainable energy future. As she pointedly argues in our conversation, “We don’t need oil and gas companies; we need oil and gas workers… These workers are not our enemies.” If we are going to continually maintain and mitigate the damage caused by abandoned oil wells, if we are going to safely remove oil and gas infrastructure on land and in the ocean, if we are going to have a “green industrial revolution” that provides safe and good-paying jobs, then we need the skills and expertise of these workers driving those essential developments.

 

Megan Milliken Biven, founder of True Transition, stands in front of oil machinery.
Megan Milliken Biven, founder of True Transition.

 

Of course, one of the single greatest obstacles to a serious, society-wide investment in a just transition is the fact that, from corporate media outlets to politicians doing the bidding of their industry donors, the economic needs of working people are invariably pitted against our collective need to transition away from dependence on environmentally destructive industries like oil, gas, and coal. It is standard practice in the halls of power to ventriloquize such workers, to speak for them, to use and exploit them as political pawns, but when workers are given a chance to speak for themselves, a different kind of picture emerges.

James Hiatt, the son of an oil refinery worker, was himself an oil refinery worker, lab analyst, and operator in Louisiana for a number of years. Now James works with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade to promote alternative forms of economic development in Louisiana beyond the grip of the fossil fuel industry. And Clarke is a longtime commercial diver who’s done contract work primarily for oil and gas companies in the Gulf of Mexico for over 15 years, but is now transitioning to other forms of commercial diving work. To listen to James and Clarke is to hear the immense toll that this kind of work takes on workers and their families. “You can’t be a dad doing this,” Clarke says, after describing the experience of working on unpredictable commercial diving assignments away from home for weeks and months on end, to say nothing of the incredibly dangerous nature of the labor oil and gas workers do on a daily basis.The oil and gas companies, James adds, “are making a killing while they’re killing us, they’re killing our coast… and they’re not even providing that many jobs.”

 

James Hiatt, former oil refinery worker now working with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, stands arms folded against a backdrop of sky.
James Hiatt, former oil refinery worker now working with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.

 

When the plight of workers like James and Clarke is cynically used to justify the planet-destroying prerogatives of the oil and gas industries, it is almost always done in the name of “creating” or “protecting jobs.” What is especially telling about this, though, as James and Clarke argue themselves, is that proponents of this narrative are admitting that, if workers were not so coerced by their economic circumstances or geographic location into relying on these industries for their livelihoods, they may very well be more openly in favor of dismantling them and building something better. And if working people themselves, not immensely powerful and profit-obsessed corporations, were the ones driving and shaping that process, the possibilities for building an ecologically sustainable, efficient, and prosperous civilization premised on care, cooperation, and the interconnectedness of all things are endless. That is why James’ message to listeners at the very end of our conversation is so powerful: “I think the important thing for people to understand… is that we’ve been kicking the can down the road for a long time, and it appears that the road is about to run out… These massive climate change events, these natural disasters—we [in the Global North] can take responsibility for that. And we can also take responsibility for ushering in a new way of being, a new way of cooperation and interconnectedness. That is what can happen when we stop exploiting and thinking of ourselves first.”

 

For your consideration:

If the need to make profit for one entity or another was taken out of the equation, what kind of jobs could be created to provide employment for workers in a “green economy”?

 

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