11/28/2012 09:01 am ET Updated Jan 28, 2013

Say "Yes" to Energy Growth

By Michael McMahan

Americans need jobs now. One problem with many current and proposed job creation policies is that they don't create jobs in the near term, which for the millions of out-of-work citizens means next week, not next year. Luckily, there is one industry in particular that continues to be a job creator: energy. While political discourse usually winds up pitting one energy source against another, the real job-growth potential lies in the development of all domestic energy sources. Despite five years of sluggish to non-existent growth in our economy, the job prospects from the energy sector give us hope.

A recent report by the International Energy Agency concludes that the U.S. could surpass Saudi Arabia as the world's top producer of oil. This increased energy production means more energy jobs. Since the end of 2009, the oil and gas extraction industry has seen a 20 percent increase in employment. This doesn't even factor in the tens of thousands of "down-stream" jobs in sectors like transportation, refining, and distribution.

Oil and gas enclaves from Midland, Tex., to Williamsport, Penn., are benefiting from a trickle-down from the current shale energy boom. North Dakota's unemployment is lowest in the nation at 3 percent, due mostly to its oil and gas production which has seen a tripling of jobs in the past 3 years. In Midland, unemployment is under 4 percent in a state where overall unemployment hovers just under 7 percent. This causes a ripple effect for job growth as new homes are rapidly being built and new businesses, like restaurants and hotels, begin to quickly hire new workers to accommodate the influx of human and business capital.

Other energy industries are seeing similarly positive results. For example, last year brought a record 109 percent increase in solar panel installations in the U.S. following dramatic price decreases in the cost of installation. Like oil and gas production increases, the large bump in solar production is leading to a job windfall across many industries. The Solar Foundation is about to release a new job census showing the addition of over 25,000 new solar jobs in the last two years and an estimate of 20,000 more in 2012. That is exceptional growth in an otherwise a dismal economic environment.
The nuclear industry is also growing, but is often overlooked. Several years removed from the tragedy in Fukushima, Japan, nuclear energy has begun to make a comeback worldwide with safer and more efficient power production. While the U.S. has not opened a new nuclear plant since 1996, it is slated to have five new plants by 2018. These new plant constructions have created over 15,000 clean energy jobs and will continue to provide jobs in their communities for decades to come. Additionally, nuclear power plants provide over twice as many jobs per megawatt of energy generated compared to coal, natural gas, and wind power combined.

The bottom line is that energy jobs are here and are abundant. Energy can provide economic growth and help unemployment dwindle. It is the low hanging fruit available to boost the economy today. Investment in a variety of energy sources can provide jobs, but we should be careful to not pick winners and losers through regulation or tax incentives. If allowed to work, the market will develop efficient and productive energy sources. Next time the political discussion asks, "Should America focus on oil or natural gas or nuclear or solar?" The answer for job growth should be "Yes."

Michael McMahan is the Program Manager for The 4% Growth Project at the George W. Bush Institute.