Our continuing coverage of Canada’s federal election September 20 carries the #Elxn44 tag. You can use the search engine on our site to find other stories in the series.
The federal Liberals have pledged C$2 billion to help workers in oil-producing provinces make the transition to a greener economy, a proposal that is getting a lukewarm reception in communities that might be beneficiaries of the funding, but a more open response from trade union and labour groups.
- Concise headlines. Original content. Timely news and views from a select group of opinion leaders. Special extras.
- Everything you need, nothing you don’t.
- The Weekender: The climate news you need.
The Liberals’ proposed Future Funds program for Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland and Labrador is part of a larger promise to ensure workers aren’t left behind as Canada pursues its climate change commitments, The Canadian Press reports. The party’s platform contains a promise to create a Clean Jobs Training Centre to help oilpatch workers upgrade or gain new skills.
In Cold Lake, Alberta—where more than 2,000 of the city’s 15,000 residents are employed at nearby tar sands/oil sands operations—Mayor Craig Copeland said he doesn’t believe most people working in the sector want to switch jobs.
Cold Lake is indeed one of the 18 Canadian communities that depend on the fossil industry for at least 5% of direct employment, according to a study released in January by former Unifor economist Jim Stanford, now director of the Centre for Future Work at Simon Fraser University. In 2016—before much of the downsizing in the sector occurred—it placed fourth on the list, with fossil fuels accounting for 16.4% of local jobs.
But Copeland’s skepticism runs counter to what many of those workers told Edmonton-based Iron & Earth in July. In a survey conducted by Abacus Data, more than two-thirds of Canadian fossil fuel workers said they are interested in jobs in a net-zero economy, 58% see themselves thriving in that economy, and nearly nine in 10 want training and upskilling for net-zero employment.
“Oil and gas workers are just people who have families, who need to put food on the table, put a roof over their heads, and this is the work they’ve known,” Iron & Earth Executive Director Luisa Da Silva told The Energy Mix at the time. “This is where their jobs have been.”
But “people are quite amenable to upskilling,” she added, and “for the workers on the ground or who are more on the technical side, their skills are still transferrable.” Whether a project is a tar sands/oil sands mine or a hydrogen plant, “they don’t look that different. If you’re a welder, you’ll be using the same skills.”
CP says the Cold Lake economy has suffered over the last seven years due to low oil prices, consolidation, and layoffs in the energy sector. Local real estate prices have fallen almost 40% since 2012, Copeland told the news agency.
However, things are looking brighter this year, thanks to higher oil prices driving increased tar sands/oil sands production. Copeland said he’s optimistic about the future of his community, a place where 20-somethings can earn six figures, buy homes, and raise families.
“We already have a huge industry that generates enormous wealth for people,” Copeland said, calling the Liberals’ transition proposal a ‘made-in-Ottawa’ solution not grounded in reality. “Until you find a way to replace that, people won’t even look at retraining.”
The Liberals have pledged to require the oil and gas industry to reduce its emissions from current levels at the pace and scale needed to achieve net-zero by 2050, and will set five-year targets toward that goal beginning in 2025.
While there are different ways to accomplish that goal, said Isabelle Turcotte, the Pembina Institute’s director of federal policy, the outcome will undoubtedly have an impact on oil and gas employees.
“It’s been hard in Canada to talk about reductions in oil and gas, because of workers,” Turcotte said. “Regardless of the pathway (to net-zero) we choose…we will see a decrease in production and consumption of oil and gas, all the way to 2050.”
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, told CP climate change is a reality his province needs to face up to.
“We’ve had a great ride with oil and gas, but the sector will never be the same engine for economic growth that it was,” he said. “Pretending that we can ignore the direction that the world is heading and go back to the past is not in the best interest of Alberta workers, including people working in the oil and gas sector.”
McGowan said the AFL has been lobbying for $10 to $20 billion per year in federal support to help oil-producing provinces and their workers diversify. He said the labour group would like to see a new federal transfer program that could fund green infrastructure projects, training, and apprenticeships in affected provinces.
Thousands of Albertans have already been affected by downsizing, automation, and the ongoing evolution of Canada’s energy sector, said Adam Legge, president of the Business Council of Alberta. The percentage of the province’s labour force that has been unemployed for more than one year is 2.4%, the highest rate of long-term unemployment in the country (the national average is 1.4%).
Legge said his organization is supportive of federal funding for clean energy, diversification, and anything else that will help to keep Alberta competitive in a changing world. But he maintained Canada’s oil and gas sector is still critical to the national economy, and will remain so for a long time.
“We support this kind of (transition fund) initiative because there are many people who aren’t going to find the same kind of job they once had,” Legge said. “But what we don’t want it to be is code for `wind down of the sector.’ We don’t support that approach at all.”
Medicine Hat, Alberta Mayor Ted Clugston said his city was “devastated” when natural gas prices collapsed in 2008 (then again in 2019). The community has been pursuing diversification ever since, and has had significant success attracting solar and wind power projects to the area. It places 14th on Stanford’s list, with 7.3% of its jobs still tied to fossil fuels as of 2016.
Clugston said the employment from renewable energy projects doesn’t come close to comparing with the thousands of local jobs created by the oil and gas sector.
“There’s lots of jobs during construction, but once (wind and solar farms) are built, there’s not that many jobs,” he said. “I don’t know where all these green jobs are going to come from.”
The federal Conservative Party platform makes no mention of a transition fund for oil and gas workers, instead criticizing Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau for “wanting to phase out the sector and its jobs.” It says a Conservative government would support fossil sector workers.
The NDP platform pledges to “work together” with labour, employers and the provinces to find solutions that could include expanded EI benefits, re-training and job placement services.
Major segments of this report were first published by The Canadian Press on September 1, 2021.