Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Ritter Called Out on Questionable Jobs Claim

Like many a politician, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter is prone to exaggerating the blessings his policies have bestowed on constituents. His over-selling of the state’s “new energy economy” – a windy catch-phrase Barack Obama has appropriated, without attribution – offers the best case in point. But thankfully there's at least one skeptic in the Colorado media who will bring the governor back down to earth when he embarks on these flights of fancy.

Ritter last week told energy conference attendees that his push for renewable energy and energy efficiency had directly or indirectly created 90,000 jobs in Colorado -- 90,000 -- citing an un-published report by the American Solar Energy Society. “We're quickly becoming a national and international hub for renewable energy," Ritter said of Colorado (though I've read or heard a lot of other governors make similar claims).

I’ve written before about this phantasm called “the new energy economy,” so I’m alert to Ritter's hucksterism on the issue. But apparently I wasn’t the only one taken back by the audacity of Ritter’s claim. Vincent Carroll, editorial page editor of the Rocky Mountain News, on Friday called Ritter out on the issue, in one of his always-incisive columns.

Here’s Carroll’s column, for readers who may have missed it.

"Gov. Bill Ritter made the startling claim this week that "the renewable energy industry is creating directly or indirectly 90,000 jobs" in Colorado - in other words, 20,000 more than the estimated employment associated with the booming oil and gas industry.

Is that possible?

Probably not, even if the figure does eventually appear in a study scheduled for release in a few weeks by the American Solar Energy Society in Boulder. Ritter got a sneak preview of the results - little wonder, as his office co-commissioned the research - which reinforced his New Energy Economy theme. So he started trumpeting the findings.

Let's put the figure of 90,000 jobs in perspective. It's nearly twice the number of cops, firefighters, security guards and prison guards in Colorado - combined. It's more than the combined total of every teacher in K-12 schools together with every lawyer and paralegal.

Ninety thousand is twice the waiters and waitresses in this state, twice the number of fast-food workers, and only 10,000 or so less than the total for all major health-care occupations (see the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the occupational employment totals).

Here's another reality check: After the legislature increased the renewable energy standard for utilities last year from 10 percent to 20 percent for 2020, the League of Conservation Voters - not known for soft-pedaling the impact of green energy - told its members that the measure would create a grand total of 4,100 jobs.

So what's up with the 90,000 claim?

For a clue, go to the American Solar Energy Society Web site and review a report called Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency: Economic Drivers for the 21st Century. The first thing you'll realize is that Ritter defined the industry more narrowly than the study apparently will. It will measure jobs not only in renewable energy but in the "energy efficiency" industry, too - which casts a very wide net.

The report admits that the energy efficiency business is "much more nebulous and difficult to define" than renewables, but that doesn't stop it from trying. For openers, its definition includes "partial segments of large industries such as vehicles [those considered energy efficient], buildings, lighting, appliances, etc." And don't sneer at that "etc." because it covers a lot of ground, too, including "insulation sales" and the recycling industry.

Never mind that people have been blowing insulation into walls for decades: That activity has now been drafted into the New Energy Economy, where it can be displayed by politicians as a trophy of their economic leadership.

According to the solar energy society, "one in four jobs in 2030" could be in the renewable-energy and energy-efficiency industries. One in four! You could be an autoworker, plumber, architect, welder, bureaucrat, furnace salesperson - you name it - and apparently be counted.
"Do you have a green job?" the society asks. "You will."

Now, there is always a certain amount of stretching and reaching in a study whose purpose is to magnify the importance of a particular activity. If the authors become too greedy, though, the exercise begins to take on the features of a farce. Maybe there are 500 renewable-energy companies in Jefferson County, as the governor also said - three times the number of public schools - but it's going to be interesting to see just what that list includes.

Who knows, maybe you're in charge of one and didn't even know it."

Carroll is at something of a disadvantage, trying to critique a report that isn't out yet. But it's not hard to anticipate that the conclusions will be skewed to advance Ritter's agenda, given that it's a state-funded "study" conducted by what's obviously an advocacy group.

A guess the next question should be: Is this an appropriate use of taxpayer money?

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