A Just Transition? On Brooklyn’s Waterfront, Oil Companies and Community Activists Join Together to Create an Offshore Wind Project—and Jobs

Residents of Sunset Park, a largely immigrant, working-class community, hope the project will bring high-paying jobs to an economically-stressed neighborhood.

Aroldo Garcia discusses a major offshore wind development coming to Brooklyn with Summer Sandoval, a campaigner with the environmental justice group UPROSE. The project could bring more than 1,000 jobs to a site in Brooklyn's Sunset Park. Credit: Nicholas Kusnetz

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When Aroldo Garcia learned that the operations base for a major offshore wind project was coming to his Brooklyn neighborhood, he thought about the jobs it could provide for his family members and friends who worked as handymen and contractors, and for others who didn’t have work at all. 

The project promised to bring more than a thousand new jobs to a waterfront site in Sunset Park, a largely immigrant, working-class community where many residents have struggled to keep up with the rising cost of living. It was, he thought, exactly the type of development people had been waiting for.

“These are not service type jobs that pay low wages,” Garcia said. “These are going to be technical jobs that pay good wages. And I think the community needs that.”

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The Biden administration has built its climate agenda on a promise that the country can create millions of high-quality jobs and address environmental injustice, all while driving a rapid transition off of fossil fuels. But this notion of a “just transition” has remained largely conceptual. In Sunset Park, many people involved in the projects say, it’s beginning to feel within reach.

In January, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced plans for two offshore wind farms, to be built by the Norwegian oil company Equinor, that would be among the largest in the country.

The wind farms are part of an effort to pair environmental progress with economic development, drawing support both from government and people in the surrounding community. If all goes as planned, those supporters say, they could serve as a national model.

Equinor and government officials say the Brooklyn site will serve as a hub for the region’s offshore wind development. Upstate, in Albany, a separate port will build turbine towers, which will be floated down the Hudson River and staged in Brooklyn. All told, Equinor’s ports and wind farms are expected to create more than 5,200 jobs and deliver enough emissions-free electricity to power 1.3 million homes, according to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which has said it would contribute up to $200 million in public funds to upgrade ports in the state. In return, Equinor has agreed to spend more than $50 million on workforce development, training and other programs intended to support and draw on the local labor pool.

For Sunset Park, the wind port offers an opportunity for green industrial development that can provide an alternative to low-wage retail jobs and dirtier industries that have given the neighborhood higher levels of air pollution than the surrounding city.

A wind turbine helps power a recycling plant on the waterfront in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, right next to an oil- and gas-fired power plant housed in a series of rectangular beige buildings. An offshore wind development that will be operated from the neighborhood could help close aging fossil fuel plants like this one. Credit: Nicholas Kusnetz

As a result, it has support from an unlikely collection of interests, including a community organization known for its fierce commitment to environmental justice and two major oil companies, Equinor and BP, which bought a 50 percent stake in the wind projects this year.

“This is about as remarkable a set of circumstances as I’ve seen,” said Nilda Mesa, who has worked in California’s Attorney General’s office, at the federal Environmental Protection Agency  and who, until 2016, was director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Sustainability. “I’m hard pressed to think of another instance of a community with the private sector, with the state government, the city and the federal government coming together and saying, ‘We agree on this sort of approach, and we are committed.’”

A Green ‘Reindustrialization’

Sunset Park’s waterfront was once a bustling hub of maritime commerce. Some 30,000 people worked in the warehouses and terminals that lined the port. Above it, the land sloped up to a neighborhood of brownstones and row houses that were home to immigrants from Scandinavia, Ireland, Germany and other European countries. Most of the men belonged to trade unions, the journalist Robert Caro wrote in The Power Broker.

But through the middle of the 20th century, Sunset Park’s fortunes declined. In the 1930s, the neighborhood was redlined by the federal government, depressing housing prices and encouraging residents to move elsewhere. In 1941, Robert Moses opened the Gowanus Parkway, which was later expanded into an “expressway,” an elevated highway that brought heavy truck traffic through the neighborhood and darkness to the once bustling commercial strip below. The 1960s brought the closure of a large marine terminal, and with it the loss of high-paying jobs along the waterfront. Warehouses were converted to a shopping mall and a federal prison. Others fell vacant.

Along the way, Sunset Park’s demographics shifted, as white residents moved out and many Puerto Rican immigrants, and later a more diverse mix of Latino and Asian immigrants, replaced them. In recent decades, Sunset Park has faced a new threat: gentrification.

New York's Offshore Wind Plans

Garcia hopes the wind port can help turn things around without jeopardizing the neighborhood’s diversity.

“The way of the future is reindustrialization,” he said, mentioning an article he’d read recently about how the pandemic and online shopping have decimated retail jobs. Equinor’s development offers a different path, he said. “These jobs are livable, middle-class wages, and you don’t have to go to college.”

Garcia, who has closely cropped hair and a slightly stooped frame, came to Sunset Park from the Dominican Republic in 1992 as a teenager, with his parents. He works in his father’s contracting business, and said he hopes they might be able to get new work through the wind development.

He learned about the project through a community group he’s involved with, called UPROSE, which has fought to clean up the neighborhood’s dirty industries and bring in green development instead. The organization is currently fighting an effort to build a new gas power plant that would replace two of three oil- and gas-fired “peaker” plants that line the waterfront and fire up when electricity demand surges.

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Nearly 45 percent of Sunset Park’s 120,000 residents are Latino, with Asians making up about 37 percent, according to Census Bureau estimates. About a quarter of residents live below the poverty level, compared to 18 percent citywide. The neighborhood’s air quality is also measurably worse: The levels of PM 2.5, the particulate pollution that comes from burning fossil fuels and has been linked to a range of respiratory ailments and premature death, is about 10 percent higher than citywide, with the expressway as a major source. Color-coded maps of pollution show the expressway cutting through the neighborhood like a toxic red artery. Rates of asthma, however, are lower than the city average.

Garcia and others hope the wind port can begin to address several of these problems at once, creating high-wage, working class jobs that fend off gentrification and allowing the city to retire old, fossil fuel power plants.

“It’s an immigrant, working-class community, it’s always been like that, I want to keep it that way,” he said. “I don’t have children of my own, but I have a nephew and a niece, and I want them to grow up in the same neighborhood that I grew up in, where there’s diversity.”

If locals can find work through the port, Garcia said, “they’re going to be able to pay their rent and stay in the neighborhood.”

Tremendous Potential

The Northeast offers ideal conditions for offshore wind: strong, steady breezes and a wide continental shelf of shallow water. And the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal offers a prime chunk of vacant, waterfront real estate, which can be hard to come by in the region.

The terminal’s 73 acres of cracked concrete and rusting fences will be cleared away and replaced with the modern port that will anchor the burgeoning offshore wind industry. Crumbling bulkheads will be shored up to support 200-foot cranes. The decrepit piers, which look out over Lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty, will be reinforced to hold turbine blades as long as football fields. Equinor says workers will assemble pieces of the turbines here on the piers, before loading them onto ships that will ferry them out to sea for installation. Other wind developers will also be able to use the terminal, and Equinor’s maintenance crews will base their operations here once construction is completed.

New York has announced plans for five offshore wind projects including Equinor’s, with a combined capacity of 4,300 megawatts, nearly halfway to the state’s goal of 9,000 megawatts by 2035. New Jersey, just across New York Bay, has a goal of 7,500 megawatts.

“There is tremendous potential for jobs,” said Mesa, the former city sustainability director, who is now an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Of the two wind farms that Equinor is planning, one, called Empire Wind, will sit south of Long Island, and another, Beacon Wind, south of Massachusetts. Construction is set to begin within a couple of years, and if all goes to plan, Equinor said, the projects could begin delivering power by the middle of the decade.

As part of its lease for the site, Equinor has agreed to a series of measures to encourage local hiring, including a $5 million fund to support job training and career fairs that will target public housing and low-income communities. The company’s procurement deal with the state comes with a commitment to spend $47 million on “regional collaborations, grants and investments in workforce development, environmental and technology research,” according to the state energy research and development authority.

Equinor is an unusual oil company. As a state-run corporation, it is essentially majority-owned by the Norwegian public, which is particularly progressive on social and climate policies. While it has drawn controversy for continuing to drill in the Norwegian Arctic, Equinor is expected to devote nearly $9 billion in capital spending to renewable energy projects through 2025, more than any other global oil major except France’s Total, according to data from Rystad Energy, a research firm. It has also set a goal of becoming “a global offshore wind energy major.”

BP, which paid $1.1 billion for its 50 percent stake in the offshore wind projects, has set a target of delivering 50,000 megawatts of renewable electricity by 2030. It also said it will increase low-carbon investment 10-fold by that year, to $5 billion annually. This year, however, BP will spend less than $500 million on new renewable projects, or less than 4 percent of its capital spending, according to Rystad Energy. 

Some people in Sunset Park are suspicious of oil money funding the wind project, said Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE. Yeampierre is hardly a friend of the industry, but she said justice-focused groups like hers need to engage with big corporations if they hope to shape the country’s energy transition.

“All of them are extractive companies, it’s all blood money,” she said. “So the goal now is how do you take businesses that are trying to move away from a culture of extraction and abuse, and move them in a direction of engaging in a just transition.”

Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of the environmental justice group UPROSE, has been talking about bringing green industry to Brooklyn’s Sunset Park since the late 1990s. Now, a major offshore wind development is expected to come to the neighborhood. Credit:Nicholas Kusnetz

Julia Bovey, director of external affairs for Equinor’s U.S. wind division, referred a question about the oil industry’s role to Joe Martens, director of the New York Offshore Wind Alliance, which includes wind developers like Equinor and environmental groups.

Martens mentioned New York’s target of reaching 70 percent renewable electricity by 2030, and said, “I applaud Equinor and any of the companies that are developing projects that are going to help us get there, because it’s a super-short time frame.”

He added, “I don’t care much whether it’s BP or Equinor or Shell or somebody else.”

Anthony Logan, a senior analyst at Wood Mackenzie, said that oil companies are well-positioned to expand into offshore wind because of their experience building and financing large, expensive engineering projects, and that European companies are already doing so. 

Royal Dutch Shell is a partner on two federal offshore wind leases. Ørsted, which also holds two federal leases, is a Danish former fossil fuel company that now claims to be the world’s leading offshore wind developer.

The American oil industry, however, has barely entered the fray. Chevron recently said its venture capital arm will invest in floating offshore wind turbines, but Logan called this a “toe-in-the-water” move. And ExxonMobil has remained skeptical of renewable energy development.

Logan said the renewable power sector can’t provide the returns that oil companies once enjoyed, but that with oil demand likely to peak within a few years, those returns are never coming back anyway.

Outside of oil and gas, he said, “offshore wind is probably the closest you’re going to get.”

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

The Biden administration has focused its climate policies perhaps even more on their economic promise than their environmental impact. “It’s about jobs, jobs, jobs,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said of the administration’s climate and infrastructure proposal, speaking at a forum last month hosted by the AFL-CIO and the Energy Futures Initiative, a centrist clean energy think-tank.

In his address last month to a joint session of Congress, President Joe Biden said, “When I think ‘climate change’ I think ‘jobs,’” adding, “There is simply no reason why the blades for wind turbines can’t be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing.”

The promise of jobs coming from climate action is not new. The Obama administration made a strong pitch for green jobs as a way to recover from the 2007-2008 global financial crisis. But many of the jobs that materialized failed to deliver high wages or union benefits.

Today, many labor leaders seem only warily optimistic. Even as he praised the administration’s commitment to organized labor, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka followed Granholm at the April forum by saying, “We need job creation to be up-front, not ‘to-be-determined.’”

That same day, Cecil Roberts Jr., head of the United Mine Workers of America, told a virtual gathering at the National Press Club, “We believe the second coming of the Lord is going to get here before a just transition gets here.”

Unionization rates in clean energy sectors remain far below those in fossil fuel industries, including at gas and coal power plants. And some data suggest that jobs in solar, wind and energy efficiency pay less, too.

“All of the fossil fuel jobs have huge pension plans, they receive a lot of benefits, that’s the reality,” said Maritza Silva-Farrell, executive director of ALIGN, an alliance of New York labor and community organizations focused on sustainable economic development. “For them it’s like, ‘Oh my God, this is my livelihood. I’m going to lose all those benefits just to go and do a solar panel? No thank you.’”

Offshore wind offers one of the better chances at creating a new industry with high levels of unionization, Silva-Farrell and others said. The key is for governments to make sure that industry erects an entire domestic manufacturing supply chain, rather than shipping components from abroad.

If all goes to plan, the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal's 73 acres of cracked concrete and rusting fences will be cleared away within a couple of years and replaced with a modern port that will serve as a base of operations for the region's burgeoning offshore wind industry. Credit: Nicholas Kusnetz
If all goes according to plan, the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal’s 73 acres of cracked concrete and rusting fences will be cleared away within a couple of years and replaced with a modern port that will serve as a base of operations for the region’s burgeoning offshore wind industry. Credit: Nicholas Kusnetz

A study last year by Wood Mackenzie, a research and consulting firm, said development from federal offshore wind lease auctions through 2022 could support 80,000 jobs a year from 2025 through 2035. The Biden administration recently set a target of developing 30,000 megawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2030.

Logan, the Wood Mackenzie analyst, said that because states generally oversee offshore wind procurement, they can set the tone in prioritizing job creation and pro-union requirements like prevailing wage standards. New Jersey, New York and Maryland, he said, are all moving in this direction, while Massachusetts has stressed lowering costs. In November, the North America’s Building Trades Unions announced a deal with Ørsted, which is building a project off New Jersey’s coast, to train workers for the industry.

While Equinor will construct its towers and concrete foundations in New York, it is likely to import the rest of the turbines from Europe, at least to start. The state wants to change that.

New York recently passed a requirement that all major renewable energy developments in the state meet a set of standards, including prevailing wage agreements and local or national procurement guidelines that encourage domestic manufacturing. But Lara Skinner, director of the Labor Leading on Climate Initiative at Cornell University’s Worker Institute, said other states are far behind.

“It’s a handful of states that have any labor standards whatsoever, and no other state has the comprehensive suite that New York just passed,” she said. “That really determines the quality of these jobs. Are they going to be good jobs for frontline communities? Are they going to be good jobs for people to transition to?”

A Powerful Combination

If Sunset Park is able to begin a just transition, it will rest on a foundation that took years to build.

Yeampierre, the executive director of UPROSE, has been talking about green industry since the late 1990s, she said, when her organization held a series of neighborhood meetings to learn what residents wanted.

“It was clear there was a consensus,” Yeampierre said, “that people wanted to keep it industrial, they wanted to retain industrial jobs and that they were also concerned about the environment.”

In the years since, the organization has developed a community solar farm, now under construction, and has fought off a proposal by real estate developers to rezone a stretch of vacant industrial buildings adjacent to the marine terminal and convert it into a high-end development of hotels, manufacturing and retail and commercial space.

The neighborhood’s representative on the city council and other community members were also involved in resisting the rezoning effort, helping set a tone that Sunset Park’s residents would play a key role in determining their neighborhood’s future.

The state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, enacted in 2019, provided the final push for the wind development, by legislating a huge goal for offshore wind procurement that would guarantee demand, and including a clause directing a large portion of the benefits to environmental justice communities like Sunset Park.

Many of the critical details, including agreements between Equinor and trade unions that could supply the labor, are still being negotiated. And Equinor and the state have not yet signed the power supply contract, but are expected to do so soon.

So far, though, no one has lined up to oppose the project. As the wind farms proceed, coastal communities could express concerns about turbines off their coasts. While the turbines will be at least 15 miles from shore, Equinor said some of them will be visible under certain weather conditions. Fishing groups could be another source of future opposition.

Mesa, the former New York City sustainability director, said that even though Sunset Park is different from many other American communities, the conditions that enabled the project to come together need not be: community involvement and leadership paired with ambitious goals for emissions reduction and economic development set by state and city governments. That, she said, “is a very powerful combination, and that kind of framework is something that surely can be replicated.”

Yeampierre drew a more direct parallel.

“Sunset Park is not unlike a lot of other industrial waterfront communities, working class communities that are struggling, that are literally choking” from fossil fuel pollution, she said. “You’ve got large, dense communities of color who are dying not just of Covid, but because of a history and a legacy of extraction. So the idea is always, how do we replicate, how do we create replicable models so that communities everywhere can benefit from this.

“So it’s exciting,” she said. “And it’s big.”