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Will the offshore wind industry solve pay and environmental issues?


President Biden likes to say that fighting climate change is about creating good-paying union jobs in addition to fixing environmental injustices. There's now a push to do both as the new offshore wind industry takes shape.

Miriam Wasser of member station WBUR in Boston reports.

MIRIAM WASSER, BYLINE: Billy Vietze stands at the bottom of a tall ladder inside the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. The 35-year-old ironworker from Boston is one of two dozen union workers who have come here to get certified for a job building the country's first large offshore wind project, Vineyard Wind.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: First thing we're going to do is just get familiar with the ladders.

WASSER: The men, many with scruffy beards and lots of tattoos, wear safety harnesses and hard hats. They could be working hundreds of feet above the ocean inside a wind turbine. And an instructor shows them how to use ropes and carabiners to stop a fall.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This goes up, up and up. Right?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Up, down, take it off.


WASSER: Offshore construction on Vineyard Wind won't begin until next summer, but Vietze is already picturing himself out at sea.

BILLY VIETZE: I'm trying to get on to this project here because it's something that's always interested me. And I'm excited about doing it. I'd like to be a part of something that's going to be good for the environment.

WASSER: He also wants this job because he's felt guilty ever since he and a work buddy helped build a controversial natural gas project just south of Boston a couple years ago.

VIETZE: We knew it was bad for the environment. But the project was happening with or without our feelings about it. And we've told each other, this is going to make up for that.

WASSER: By the end of the decade, President Biden wants the country to install thousands of offshore wind turbines capable of generating 30 gigawatts of power. That'd be like moving all of New England's power plants into the ocean. The White House says meeting this goal could slash carbon dioxide emissions while creating 77,000 jobs.

JON GROSSMAN: Creating jobs by itself is not the solution. The jobs have to be good jobs, and the people who need them have to be the ones who get them.

WASSER: Jon Grossman is a labor union leader in Massachusetts. He says not all green jobs are good ones. Workers in onshore wind and solar tend to make less than those in coal, natural gas and oil, for instance. That's why a lot of labor unions have been skeptical of green energy.

GROSSMAN: We're concerned about climate change. The problem comes when we feel we're asked to pay a disproportionate share of the cost.

WASSER: It's not every day that the U.S. builds a new industry like offshore wind from scratch. And there are high hopes for it, including the chance to help fix longstanding labor and environmental justice issues.

But the industry won't deliver these promises on its own, says Carol Zabin. She's with the University of California's Berkeley Labor Center.

CAROL ZABIN: You have to be really intentional.

WASSER: Zabin says careful planning is needed from policymakers and developers to create high-wage jobs in communities that need them.

ZABIN: I think it's important to think of this as an industrial planning opportunity, which is sort of unheard of in the U.S. We don't plan. We're a market economy. We let the chips fall where they are and try to clean up messes.

WASSER: She says states and the federal government can invest in training programs, like the one Vietze is taking. And states can sign contracts with wind developers who promise to do things like revitalize crumbling ports. Project labor agreements are another powerful tool. Earlier this summer, Vineyard Wind guaranteed that at least half of the 1,000 construction jobs for its project will go to union workers like Vietze. And of those jobs, 20% are reserved for people of color. But many experts point out that most of the future jobs in offshore wind won't be in construction. They'll be in what's called the supply chain, the onshore factories and suppliers that produce the 8,000 components needed to build a single turbine.

Ross Gould is with the nonprofit Business Network for Offshore Wind.

ROSS GOULD: We need the manufacturing capabilities to be located domestically in order to succeed at the Biden administration's plan.

WASSER: When it comes to offshore wind, the U.S. is behind, though. Right now most of the factories building blades and towers are in Europe and Asia. So are the special ships required to install turbines as large as the Eiffel Tower. But given the future demand for offshore wind around the world, Gould says the U.S. has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get in on the market before it really takes off or before the wait time for internationally manufactured parts becomes untenable.

GOULD: Globally, the offshore wind industry is forecasted to be a $1 trillion industry by 2040. So we would want a piece of that pie to be domestically located, right?

WASSER: There are efforts underway to start building these factories here. And Susannah Hatch with the Environmental League of Massachusetts wants states, wind developers and the business community to make sure that they're located in places where people of color or from other underserved communities can get many of those jobs.

SUSANNAH HATCH: You can't just say, like, oh, yeah; we're going to do this. It takes a lot of hard work because a lot of this inequity is just baked in to our society. And it's going to take a lot of work to undo it.

WASSER: New Bedford, Mass. is one city Hatch and others have their eye on. It's slated to be the onshore hub of the first two wind projects in the state. And more are likely to follow. New Bedford is a diverse city that has long attracted immigrants to work in the fishing industry. But fishing isn't what it once was.

DANA REBEIRO: There hasn't been a new industry in New Bedford for quite some time. Our poverty levels are pretty staggering.

WASSER: Former city councilor Dana Rebeiro was born and raised in New Bedford. She's now a community liaison for Vineyard Wind and says her top priority is helping people learn about job opportunities. She knocks on doors, goes to community events and recently hosted a pizza lunch over Zoom with girls in an after-school program. As a Black woman, she says she's trying to inspire the next generation.

REBEIRO: And it's really making sure that when there're opportunities, we're really going every place and letting everybody know that these jobs are here, this mentorship program is here, this internship program is here, right?



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: All right. Coming down.


WASSER: Back at the Mass. Maritime Academy, Billy Vietze watches his fellow union workers stage a mock rescue.

VIETZE: I've had a certain amount of pride with every project that I've ever worked on, whether it's a school or a hospital. But this is something different.

WASSER: Vietze says he can imagine a day where he and his family fly out of Boston and pass by the giant turbines rising out of the ocean. See those, he'll tell his son. Your dad helped build them. Your dad helped build a new industry in the U.S.

For NPR News, I'm Miriam Wasser in Bourne, Mass.


MARTINEZ: This story was co-reported with Ben Storrow of E&E News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miriam Wasser