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Energy job losers could get windfall

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Workers who lose their jobs if the pending climate change legislation becomes law could get a weekly paycheck for up to three years, subsidies to find new work and other generous benefits -- all courtesy of Uncle Sam -- under a little-noticed provision of the bill.

Touted by its House Democratic authors as a jobs engine, the bill offers extraordinary compensation for those who would lose their paycheck as a consequence of its passage.

Adversely affected employees in oil, coal and other fossil-fuel sector jobs would qualify for a weekly check worth 70 percent of their current salary for up to three years. In addition, they would get $1,500 for job-search assistance and $1,500 for moving expenses from the bill's "climate change worker adjustment assistance" program, which is expected to cost $4.2 billion from 2011 to 2019.

The bill passed the House a week ago in a hotly contested 219-212 vote, with supporters arguing that a principal reason to support the bill is that it would create millions of new jobs. But analyses from the political left and right argue that potentially millions of jobs in industries tied to traditional fossil fuels would be lost and, at least initially, not enough "green" jobs would be created to replace them.

Critics of the legislation seized on the unemployment compensation provision as proof that jobs would be lost.

"Can you name another jobs-creation bill that was so concerned about its potential impact that it preemptively included a benefits' program for the millions of workers it expected to displace?" asked Chris Tucker, a spokesman for the Institute for Energy Research, a pro-oil industry independent think tank.

"This provision is an indication the transition won't be as smooth and easy as supporters of the bill make it seem," agreed Matt Letourneau, a spokesman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy.

The nation's largest business group opposes the House bill approved last week but says it does support congressional action to deal with climate change issues.

While the analyses assume displaced workers will eventually find jobs, the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution predicts a net job loss of 0.5 percent over the first 10 years that carbon reduction legislation, called "cap-and-trade," is in effect. The conservative Heritage Foundation found that by 2030 net job losses would top 1.1 million, while the Coalition for Affordable American Energy, an industry group, estimates that more than 3 million jobs would be lost by 2030 as a result of the cap-and-trade system.

House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, California Democrat, wrote the displaced-worker provision into the bill. He said it would be necessary during the transition into "green-economy jobs."

"In a very important step, under our bill American workers will be able to take advantage of opportunities that will help them transition into the new sustainable careers of the future," Mr. Miller said.

Supporters of the bill say the unemployment provision is a "safety net" and they do not expect unemployed workers to have to use it, at least in large numbers.

Daniel J. Weiss, director of climate strategy for the liberal Center for American Progress, said the provision is similar to one in the Clean Air Act of 1990. "We learned that these types of assistance programs were not very highly utilized," he said.

The legislation that cleared the House of Representatives late last week would mandate the use of "clean energy" sources while cutting the nation's use of fossil fuels - including oil and coal. Fossil fuels emit large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

Displaced workers in industries that produce energy or are energy-intensive would be eligible to collect the special assistance. Employees laid off from facilities that mine, produce, process or use fossil fuels to generate electricity also could would be eligible for aid.

To receive government money, laid-off workers would have to file a claim with their state government, which will manage the unemployment program, as well as the federal government. In most case, workers would also have to enroll in a job training program.

Displaced workers would also be eligible to receive health insurance, with the government footing 80 percent of the bill.

The billions of dollars that would finance the unemployment fund would come from polluters under the cap-and-trade system. The system requires companies and entities that pollute to pay for the right to emit carbon dioxide above government-established limits.

Job losses probably would not happen right away, even if Congress meets President Obama's deadline for a bill by the end of the year. Its main provisions do not take effect until 2012.

"I doubt there will be a bunch of people filing for assistance when the bill first launches because it won't have a huge economic effect for at lease five years," said James Heintz, associate director for the Political Economy Research Institute at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who co-authored a study on job creation under the bill.

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