The federal government is under intensifying pressure to invest its widely-anticipated oil and gas bailout wisely, with a group of environmental, labour, and faith groups representing about 1.3 million people urging Ottawa to direct the funds to workers and families, not fossil companies.
“Giving billions of dollars to failing oil and gas companies will not help workers and only prolongs our reliance on fossil fuels,” the groups said in an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released yesterday. Instead, a share of the federal dollars should go toward addressing the fossil industry’s massive and massively expensive problem with abandoned oil and gas wells, with funding “tied to regulatory change in Alberta to ensure the province puts in place a polluter-pays program, so the public is not left with these liabilities in the future.”
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“If you pour money into the wealthiest people in the country and the biggest corporations, it doesn’t trickle down to the workers,” said Rev. Cheri Di Novo, of Toronto’s Trinity St. Paul’s United Church, a former Ontario NDP politician. “It tends to stay at the top.”
With a bailout that would amount to one of the government’s biggest spending programs in recent memory, “they can use this opportunity to actually put in place the kinds of investments that are aligned with the commitments they’ve made,” added Julia Levin, climate and energy program manager with Toronto-based Environmental Defence.
Robin Edger, executive director of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, rejected the argument that bailing out companies would bail out their employees, The Canadian Press reports. “Why don’t we just cut out the middleman? If our concern is the workers, we should just support the workers directly,” Edger said. “We have oil and gas wells that need to be cleaned up. We have industries with real futures that we need workers to be trained into.”
The groups were reacting to news reports last week that Alberta was demanding a C$15-billion federal bailout modelled on the Obama-era Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), in which the U.S. government bought shares in major automakers to prevent them from going bankrupt in the 2008 economic crash. Last Wednesday, the Globe and Mail headlined the relief as imminent; on Thursday, the paper said the announcement was expected earlier this week.
“Clearly, giving all that money to (General Motors)—and I was in government when they did it—did not save those workers’ jobs,” di Novo said yesterday. “As soon as the company could make more profit by moving their operation somewhere else, they did.” (Our investigative ace Paul McKay has other recollections of TARP in this morning’s Mix.)
The Globe last Thursday had the Kenney government and 63 Alberta CEOs lobbying in tandem for a package that included a federal government purchase of fossil shares, suspension of the federal carbon tax and income taxes at all levels, and a menu of other tax and regulatory concessions. But the response from Ottawa was circumspect.
“A federal source cautioned that major players such as Suncor and Canadian Natural Resources have the financial resources to pick up many of the small and medium-sized energy companies that can’t survive the current crisis, and that Ottawa’s role should be focused on helping unemployed oil and gas workers,” the Globe wrote. Finance Minister Bill Morneau “has already said Ottawa will provide financial assistance to create jobs in reclaiming orphan wells,” and is considering changes in payroll taxes.
“We know that the oil and gas sector has been particularly affected, and specific help is needed,” said Carlene Variyan, communications director to Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan. “We’re looking at all options—including helping maintain jobs in the industry by enabling workers to put their skills to use remediating the environmental liabilities associated with orphan wells.”
Within a day of Thursday’s story, Oil Change International was out with a response that foreshadowed yesterday’s open letter to Trudeau.
“We’re in the middle of an unprecedented global health emergency and economic crash, [and] we can’t afford for the federal government to bail out a sector in terminal decline,” said Edmonton-based research analyst Bronwen Tucker. “Workers and communities are struggling right now—there are still massive gaps in Canada’s COVID-19 response packages that are putting millions at risk of losing their homes, jobs, and health. It is criminal for Trudeau to be pursuing a massive handout to Big Oil instead of ensuring these basic needs are met.”
Tucker added that “we have seen this movie before. The money from the 2009 TARP bailout overwhelmingly flowed to banks and wealthy shareholders. Since the oil crash in 2014, more than 50,000 jobs have not returned to Canada’s oilpatch, with companies prioritizing massive dividends for their shareholders instead—the five biggest oil sands companies handed at least $10.3 billion to shareholders in 2019 alone.”
With trillions of dollars needed to build a resilient economy after the pandemic, she added, ‘this is a critical opportunity to fund a just transition from oil and gas that protects workers, communities, and the climate instead of tying their future to a sunsetting and volatile commodity.”
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