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Just Transition for Oil and Gas Workers Would Bridge Divide Over Kinder Morgan

A Globe and Mail columnist and self-described Ontario climate hawk is calling for a just transition for tar sands/oil sands workers, as a key step in bridging the divide over fossil fuel production and the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

“I’m glad the oil sands are a sunset industry: they’re an absolute environmental nightmare,” Denise Balkissoon writes. “That doesn’t mean those who work there are bad people, but that everyone in Canada needs to help them move on.”

Balkissoon cites climate change as “a global emergency, one that requires immediate, drastic action, including the rapid phasing-out of fossil fuels.” But she acknowledges that “that’s an easy position to take when no one I know works in oil or gas.”

And she points to a “regional fragmentation” that is “only deepening” as the battle over the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion unfolds. “Too often, these discussions get polarized: short-sighted Western Canadians making a quick buck off a dying planet, versus spoiled Ontarians who don’t understand how real people support their families. B.C. is full of lichen-eating hippies who oppose all resource extraction—they’re happy to hoverboard to work in the mornings, so there.”

For Balkissoon, a moment of synthesis came from a conversation with Iron & Earth founder and Executive Director Lliam Hildebrand who worked in the tar sands/oil sands as a welder, boilermaker, and steel fabricator for six years until the oil price crash led to massive layoffs. After “hundreds of conversations about the need to transition into renewable energy jobs,” he said, he now advocates a “prosperous transition” away from the fossil economy that is “beneficial to workers, families, communities, the environment, and the economy.”

Balkissoon said the notion of a “just transition” has been in circulation in various forms since the 1980s, has been adopted by European countries trying to ease the shift for former coal workers, and is invoked in the Paris agreement reference to “the imperative of a just transition of the work force and the creation of decent work and quality jobs.” But while governments and the trade union movement in Canada are working on a just transition task force for the workers affected by the 2030 coal phaseout embodied in the pan-Canadian climate plan, Balkissoon notes that nothing similar is available for the oil and gas work force.

Upskilling workers needn’t be intensive,” she notes, citing Hildebrand. “Solar and wind are the fastest-growing sources of renewable energy, and training a certified electrician to work on a solar farm only requires a five-day course.” Ultimately, Iron & Earth stresses the need for efficient transition programs: “there’s no need for a certified tradesperson to take two years off to be accredited as a wind turbine technician at Lethbridge College,” she writes, though Hildebrand “recommends the course highly to newcomers”.

Hildebrand added that the transition is well under way in other jurisdictions: In Texas’ booming wind industry, the majority of the workers come out of oil and gas. He told Balkissoon he wanted Canadians to know “how excited workers are to…contribute to addressing climate change through using the skills they’re so proud of.”

But the cost, you insist: well, the fossil fuel industry in Canada currently gets C$3.3 billion a year in subsidies in the form of various tax credits—and one election promise made by Mr. Trudeau was to scrap them,” Balkissoon writes. “Instead, he’s considering putting public dollars into the beleaguered Trans Mountain project, which is owned by one of the largest energy infrastructure companies on the continent.”