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EXCLUSIVE: ‘No Mention of Workers’ as Fossil Lobby Aims to Refocus Just Transition on Producers

With the deadline for comments on a federal just transition strategy coming up tomorrow, Canada’s fossil lobby is making best efforts to change the channel from what’s best for oil and gas workers and communities, to what it will take to sustain the country’s carbon-heavy fossil producers.

Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) announced the consultation just before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s August 15 election call and issued a nine-page discussion paper [pdf] on a “people-centred” just transition. Canada’s Energy Citizens, a group organized and funded by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), responded with a call to action for industry supporters to push back on the process.

“We need to ensure we get as many submissions in support of Canada’s natural gas and oil industry in as possible,” CEC/CAPP writes. “We know opponents of Canada’s industry are working hard to get thousands of people to make submissions calling for the end of Canadian oil and gas development.”

The NRCan consultation page acknowledges from the outset that “climate change is happening now, changing our communities and forcing us to change and adapt with it.” Adding that “the future success of our economy hinges on our ability to compete in an increasingly green, low-carbon global economy,” it defines just transition as “an approach to economic, environmental, and social policy that aims to create an equitable and prosperous future for workers and communities.”

The department invites input on a “people-centred just transition principles that put workers and communities at the centre of the government’s policy and decision-making processes on climate change action,” with regional and sectoral advice from a Just Transition Advisory Body.

Missing the Memo

CEC/CAPP snarks back at the very notion of a just transition, apparently missing the memo that a fast, far-reaching transition is already beginning.

“As Canada talks of ‘just transitions’, global energy demand is growing rapidly,” the counter-campaign site states. “So, we need you to make a submission today to stand up for the over 500,000 people and thousands of businesses who rely on Canada’s oil and natural gas industry.”

CEC/CAPP calls for the just transition process to recognize a continuing global role for Canadian oil and gas, allow for “technology neutral” innovations to reduce the industry’s production emissions, and protect fossil fuel workers’ standard of living.

“This will hurt Canada’s middle class,” the fossil lobby flatly declares. That’s a curious conclusion to reach when two-thirds of the oil and gas workers responding to a recent Iron & Earth survey said they wanted retraining for clean energy jobs, and recent news coverage from fossil-dependent Estevan, Saskatchewan had former oil rig workers choosing lower-wage but more predictable, permanent jobs over higher salaries in an increasingly volatile industry.

After reviewing the CEC/CAPP campaign site, “the thing that shocked me is that there’s really no mention of workers anywhere,” Iron & Earth Executive Director Luisa Da Silva told The Energy Mix late Tuesday. “That kind of says it all. In a lot of ways I do think the point has been missed.”

While the site refers to the people and business operators who currently rely on the industry, “it’s quite obvious their biggest concern is money, and not wanting to be out of pocket,” Da Silva added. “That’s absolutely fine,” since “they represent businesses, and businesses want to turn a profit. But the solution is not necessarily to stay in the space they have occupied.” 

Just as it took a number of years for tar sands/oil sands production to ramp up in Alberta, the province now has great potential to move into net-zero technologies, she said. But “it has to be focused on workers because it’s the just transition, and that’s what the just transition is about.”

In an email yesterday, CEC Manager Jarret Coels said the organization wants to “ensure the talent and expertise of our skilled natural gas and oil industry workers are recognized as essential to meeting Canada’s environmental ambitions and building the future prosperity of Canadians.” But his statement appeared to hinge that recognition on “credible forecasts” showing that “natural gas and oil supply will need to grow for decades to come to meet the world’s demand.”

In years past, those forecasts came from the World Energy Outlook produced annually by the International Energy Agency. This past May, however, the IEA published a widely-cited 1.5°C pathway that calls for a 75% reduction in oil demand by 2050, along with a 55% drop in natural gas use. Months later, the latest science assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change laid out the alarming consequences of missing the 1.5°C target.

As global demand declines, the IEA said high-cost oil producers like Canada will be first to fail in international markets.

In response to an emailed request for further comment, CAPP media advisor Elisabeth Besson said the organization is “working with the federal government through the consultation process and [does] not have more to offer at this stage.”

(The Energy Mix will have full coverage of this year’s World Energy Outlook when the IEA publishes it October 13. Subscribe today to get all the details.)

A Decades-Old Political Playbook

The CEC/CAPP campaign page also invites supporters to dig into the finer details of advisory board design, contending that NRCan should “ensure that provincial governments play a role in selecting advisory body representatives.” 

That demand comes out of a decades-old political playbook in which the fossil industry turns to sympathetic provincial governments to look out for its interests in negotiations with Ottawa, Greenpeace Canada Senior Energy Strategist Keith Stewart told The Mix.

CAPP has “relied on a strategy of using provincial premiers to block federal action, so you have [Alberta Premier] Jason Kenney, you have [Saskatchewan Premier] Scott Moe acting as spokespeople for the industry and saying they’re doing it in the interest of citizens,” Stewart said. Until now, he added, the underlying claim has been that what’s good for the industry is good for oil- and gas-producing provinces.

But “I think they see just transition as a threat because it’s a way to bring oil workers and oil-dependent communities into the transition in a way that doesn’t create a loss for them,” Stewart added. “If you’re an oil worker and you see climate action as a threat to your job, you’re not going to support it. If you see that the rest of the country is going to support you and your community through the transition in the same way we supported each other through COVID, you’ll be interested in the opportunities.”

The way to “overcome some of the problems with federalism and the way the provinces can undermine a national strategy on climate change,” Stewart said, “is to recognize that the people who are harmed the most [in the transition] are going to have be compensated and protected. That’s good for them and it’s good for Alberta. It’s bad news for oil companies that would rather have all the money come directly to them for things like carbon capture and storage.”

In Monday’s edition of Politico’s Ottawa Playbook newsletter, former Conservative senator Hugh Segal noted that the federal climate agenda—along with other top Liberal Party priorities like crime and housing—lies “profoundly in the provincial jurisdiction”. His recipe for success was to assign senior officials who can work things out behind the scenes.

“You have to be certain that the deputy ministers who are going to be in charge of execution are deputy ministers who have good relationships in the provinces with their counterparts—and who can work those relationships to find joint ways of achieving the commitments which the government has made,” Segal said.

But Stewart was less optimistic about some provinces’ agenda.

“CAPP is asking to put provincial representatives directly on the Just Transition Advisory Body…who will probably try and sabotage the whole process from the inside,” he said. “They’ll blithely claim that job losses [in oil and gas] are entirely due to federal climate policies, whereas it’s clearly shifts in international markets that are driving a lot of this.”