Can Biden unite Labour and climate activists with his American Jobs Plan ?

On March 31, U.S. President Biden announced his “American Jobs Plan,” which outlines over $2 trillion in spending proposals, including $213 billion to build, modernize and weatherize affordable housing,  $174 billion for incentives and infrastructure for electric vehicles; $100 billion for power grid modernization and resilience; $85 billion investment in modernizing public transit and bringing it to underserved areas; $35 billion investment in clean technology research and development, including incubators and demonstration projects; $16 billion employing union oil and gas workers to cap abandoned oil and gas wells and clean up mines, and $10 billion to launch a  Civilian Climate Corps to work on conservation and environmental justice projects.  All of these are proposals, to be subject to the political winds of Washington, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggesting a date of July 4 for a vote on legislation.

The White House Fact Sheet outlines the specifics . Robert Reich calls the plan “smart politics” in  “Joe Biden as Mr. Fix-it” in Commons Dreams, and according to “Nine Ways Biden’s $2 Trillion Plan Will Tackle Climate Change” in Inside Climate News, “President Joe Biden aims to achieve unprecedented investment in action to address climate change by wrapping it in the kind of federal spending package that has allure for members of Congress of both parties.”   David Roberts offers a summary and smart, informed commentary in his Volt blog, stating: “Within this expansive infrastructure package is a mini-Green New Deal, with large-scale spending targeted at just the areas energy wonks say could accelerate the transition to clean energy — all with a focus on equity and justice for vulnerable communities on the front lines of that transition. If it passes in anything like its current form, it will be the most significant climate and energy legislation of my lifetime, by a wide margin.”

Julian Brave NoiseCat writes in the National Observer on April 6, summing up the dilemma:   …” Each policy has the potential to unite or divide the Democrat’s coalition of labour unions, people of colour, environmentalists and youth activists. Some policies, like the creation of a new Civilian Climate Corps …. are directly adopted from demands pushed by activists like the youth-led Sunrise Movement. Others, like investments in existing nuclear power plants and carbon capture retrofits for gas-fired power plants, will pit labour unions against environmental justice activists from the communities those industries often imperil. Uniting the environmental activists who oppose the development of fossil fuel pipelines with the workers who build them will be among the Democrats’ greatest challenges.”

Some Specific U.S. statements:

Generally favourable reaction comes in a brief statement from the AFL-CIO. The  BlueGreen Alliance states: “This is a historic first step, and yet we know this and more will be needed to deliver the scale of investment needed, particularly in disadvantaged communities and for workers and communities impacted by energy transition.”  Similarly, Kate Aronoff writes “Biden’s Infrastructure Plan Needs More Climate Spending” in The New Republic; and the Climate Justice Alliance response is titled  “Grassroots, Environmental Justice Communities call on Biden To Go Bigger, Bolder And Faster For A Climate, Care And Infrastructure Recovery Package That Meets The Moment”.

The Sunrise Movement press release commends Biden for calling for passage of the PRO Act, for clean energy initiatives, and environmental justice aspects, and has a mixed reaction to Biden’s version of the Civilian Climate Corps: “This gives our movement a starting place, and with a foot in the door we can fight to expand and strengthen the CCC over the coming years.” ….. “The plan Biden rolled out today would create about 10,000-20,00 jobs in a Civilian Climate Corps, which would train and employ young people to build clean energy and decarbonize the economy. When FDR rolled out a similar Civilian Conservation Corps, it employed around 300,000 people per year, and that was back when the US population was ~40% of its current size .”   

Will Biden’s Plan push Canada’s climate ambitions?

The CBC published “Here are four ways Biden’s big climate bill touches Canada” .  Mitchell Beer compiles reactions in “Biden Jobs, Infrastructure Plan Aims to ‘Turbocharge the transition’ off Fossil Fuels”  in The Energy Mix, including Adam Radwanski’s response in the Globe and Mail, “Joe Biden’s new climate plans should jolt Ottawa” (restricted access).   And the Canadian United Steelworkers alludes to the “Buy American” elephant in the room for Canadians, in its press release titled, Build Back Better Through Infrastructure Spending on Both Sides of the Border (April 1)  “the United Steelworkers union (USW) sees U.S. President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan as an opportunity to maintain and create jobs, bolster manufacturing and make our communities safer. ….A decade ago, the USW worked with the Obama administration and the Canadian government to create a North American strategy that benefited workers in the United States and Canada…. Canada is not the problem facing U.S. manufacturing and workers. Co-operation between Canada and U.S. will build on our longstanding and productive trading relationship.”

Just Transition policies in Canada, EU and OECD countries – including unique case studies

How Can we Manage a Just Transition? A comparative review of policies to support a just transition from carbon intensive industries  was released by the University of Victoria , Institute for Integrated Energy Systems in late March 2021.  The researchers examined national Just Transition policies in Canada and in twenty-five European Union and Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, along with EU-level and regional entities.  Seven main thematic areas were identified: i) governance mechanisms: ii) climate and sustainability planning; iii) workforce development; iv) economic development; v) regional and rural development; vi) innovation and research; vii) social security.  Amongst the key findings:  Jobs and environment-focussed initiatives are the most common, with well-developed workforce and skills strategies evident. However, the researchers highlight many deficiencies, including a lack of social justice language in policies; a lack of targeted strategies, excepting for the coal industry; a lack of proactive planning – with the exception of workforce development measures; and a lack of integrated planning at the industrial/economic planning level.  The report points to best practice examples –  in New Zealand for its proactive approach,  and in Scotland and Ireland, for accountability through Just Transitions Commissions.  

The report provides a thorough literature review, international analysis, and identifies areas where further research is needed. It also provides ten brief, unique case studies which include, but go beyond fossil-fuel related transitions, consisting of: Ontario, Canada; Grand-Est, France; Saarland, Germany; Western Macedonia, Greece; Piedmont, Italy; Incheon, Capital Region, Korea; Bay of Plenty, New Zealand; Basque Country, Spain; Kalmar, Småland with Islands, Sweden; and Wales, United Kingdom.

Trans Mountain pipeline protests continue as a new report estimates costs up to $13 billion for Canadian taxpayers

As construction of the Trans Mountain expansion continues and the British Columbia government weighs the risks of potential oil spills, protests against the project continue. “Tiny House Warriors And Braided Warriors Accomplices Lock Down On Trans Mountain Site” (Sparrow Project, April 3) describes the protest by those supporting the resistance of the Secwepemc First Nations – also as described in “ ‘We Will Not Stop’: First Nations Land Defenders Take Direct Action Against Trans Mountain Pipeline” in Common Dreams (April 3) . In what they call a “deep dive”, The Tyee and Investigate West co-published  “For BC’s Two Pipeline Fights, It’s Spring Forward”, which delves into the many actors in the continuing opposition to Trans Mountain and the Coastal Gas Link pipelines.  Also in The Tyee, “Youth Climate Activists Aim to Rally Support for Indigenous Land Defenders” describes the March 19 Global Climate March protest by Sustainabiliteens in Vancouver. The National Observer maintains an archive of articles documenting Trans Mountain developments, here. Amidst it all, the provincial government weighs granting an environmental certificate re protections for oil spills, as explained in “B.C. relying on the federal shoreline protections for Trans Mountain pipeline it previously called inadequate” in The Narwhal .

An academic report, released on March 31, supports the protests with financial and cost benefit analysis, as summarized by the CBC here.  Evaluation of the Trans Mountain Expansion Project is written by lead author Thomas Gunton, Director of Simon Fraser University’s  School of Resource and Environmental Management. The report concludes that continuing the construction of the Trans Mountain Expansion project will bring a net cost to Canada of $6.8 billion under base case assumptions – with the possibility of costs running as high as $13.3 billion  “….because the TMEP capacity is not required and therefore does not generate a benefit. Oil transported on TMEP could have been transported on other pipelines without expending funds building TMEP. Therefore, continuing to build TMEP as currently proposed is not in Canada’s public interest and the project should not proceed further.”

Much has changed since Professor Gunton’s previous evaluation in 2017 of the Trans Mountain expansion project, including the federal government’s purchase of Trans Mountain in 2018. The 2021 report, Evaluation of the Trans Mountain Expansion Project is highly critical of the previous assessments by the National Energy Board, used to justify the purchase – and makes specific note of how the NEB distorted job projections provided by the Conference Board of Canada to overestimate the job benefits. The December 2020 report of the Parliamentary Budget Office found that the Trans Mountain Expansion profitability was dependent on climate change policies – so the Gunton report updates the PBO analysis by taking into account the climate change policies announced in the December 2020 Healthy Environment Healthy Economy climate plan. Finally, it provides detailed cost benefit analysis both for completion and for termination of the TMX project – incorporating environmental costs, including the risks of pipeline spills. Regarding employment benefits, the analysis finds modest positive benefits, given the existing recession in the oil and gas sector.    

“A potential benefit of TMEP is providing employment to workers. As discussed in Section 3.2.6 of this report, the measure of employment benefits is not the gross number of jobs generated by TMEP but is instead the net employment and income gain of employees of TMEP relative to what they would have made if TMEP did not proceed. Historically, the economy of Western Canada has been characterized by tight labour markets in which most employees are employed. Under full employment, projects like TMEP would simply draw employees from other jobs with little to no net employment benefit. However, given the current recession and recent slowdowns in the energy sector and the potential of TM training and hiring employees through impact benefit agreements, there will likely be an employment benefit, with some hiring of persons who would otherwise be unemployed or employed at a lower wage.” (p.45).

Finally, a roadmap to a Canadian Just Transition Act

In 2019 at COP25, Canada’s federal politicians pledged to enact a Just Transition Act , and even included the promise in the Liberal election platform.  Yet the December 2020 federal climate plan, A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy, makes little mention of Just Transition, and the absence of follow-through has not gone unnoticed – for example, in a January 2021 article in the Toronto Star which asks: “The Liberals promised help for oil workers as their jobs disappear. So where is it?

On April 1, a new report,  Roadmap to a Canadian Just Transition Act:  A path to a clean and inclusive economy advances the issue by offering a framework and costed proposals for essential provisions.  The Roadmap is built on an overview of the international research and best practices, and makes proposals which are meant to be comprehensive and ambitious, and commensurate with the scale of the problem- costed as “in the order of $16.5 billion per year (declining over the lifetime of the transition).”

The Roadmap proposes the following components for a Just Transition Act for Canada:

• Enshrine fundamental just transition principles, rights and definitions; • Establish a Just Transition Commission to oversee and guide the government’s transition agenda; • Establish a Just Transition Benefit to support workers in affected communities; • Establish an Economic Diversification Crown Corporation to invest in job-creating projects in affected communities; • Establish a Just Transition Training Fund that ensures access for historically marginalized groups to employment in the lower-carbon economy; and, • Establish a new federal-provincial/territorial Just Transition Transfer to deliver funding for these new social programs.

The role of the Just Transition Commission is central, coordinating the activities that will be administered through federal departments, encompassing the entire Canadian economy and workforce. The commission should represent and engage with “a wide variety of stakeholders, including labour unions, civil society groups, Indigenous peoples, business associations, independent experts, and public servants from governments of all levels.  …..It should lead the development of regionally specific roadmaps for Canada’s transition away from fossil fuels—plans that map out a timeline for the wind down of fossil fuel production and the scaling up of alternative industries for affected provinces and communities. It should propose and monitor policies related to decarbonization and workforce transition to ensure the principles of a just transition are respected at all stages of implementation. The commission should play a role in developing skills inventories and recommending investments in training for affected regions and workers. It should also work with employers and workers to facilitate job shifting and job bridging to avoid layoffs wherever possible.”

Regarding a Just Transition Benefit for individuals, the authors state:  “Unlike some existing transition supports, eligibility for this benefit should not be conditional on direct employment in an emissions-intensive industry. Instead, anyone suffering a significant drop in income due to the wind down of fossil fuel production in a qualifying region should be able to claim it. The benefit should be available, for as long as necessary, to help displaced workers to seek re-training and/or re-employment.”

Regarding proactive economic diversification, the report notes that “the amount spent by Canadian governments on economic diversification in the context of decarbonization is woefully inadequate” and calls for the creation of  a new federal Economic Diversification Crown Corporation, distinct from the existing Western Economic Diversification Fund or the Canada Infrastructure Bank. It would play “a crucial and distinct role in accelerating economic diversification away from fossil fuels through direct public ownership of new infrastructure …At least initially, new public investments in economic diversification must be on the scale of the industries being phased out—in the order of $15 billion per year at first and declining as the transition unfolds.”

Regarding training, the report calls for the legislation to “create a Just Transition Training Fund that has the explicit purpose of training new workers from historically marginalized groups for good, green jobs in a lower-carbon economy. Offering preferential support to certain groups, including women, Indigenous peoples, disabled people and people from racialized communities, is consistent with the principle of employment equity and protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”  The report calls for “ a significant portion of the Just Transition Training Fund should be allocated directly to expand training infrastructure, including through public colleges, labour union training centres and on job sites across the country.”

Roadmap to a Canadian Just Transition Act:  A path to a clean and inclusive economy was written by Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood and Clay Duncliffe, and co-published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Analysis and the Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Respond to Climate Change (ACW) Research program . Mertins Kirkwood summarizes the contents in an Opinion piece in the National Observer .

Massachusetts climate legislation almost derailed by opposition to greener building code provisions

An Act creating a next-generation roadmap for Massachusetts climate policy was signed into law on March 26, summarized in Governor Charlie Baker’s press release, here . It is a sweeping and ambitious bill which sets emissions reduction targets, including six sectoral goals, culminating in net-zero emissions for the state by 2050; sets appliance efficiency standards; incentivizes electric vehicles; includes environmental justice protections; and orders funding for a clean energy equity workforce and market development program to support employment opportunities for certified minority- and women-owned small business and individuals living in environmental justice communities. 

And as described in “What You Need To Know About The New Mass. Climate Law”  (NPR, WBUR, March 26) ,the Roadmap legislation also authorizes the development of stretch energy codes for net-zero energy buildings. The Department of Energy Resources will announce the final version after public consultations for the next 18 months, after which municipalities can choose to adopt the model codes.  The building code provisions were the major sticking point in the political battle over this legislation, and triggered a Governor’s veto in 2020, thanks to organized opposition from the natural gas industry and real estate industry, both of whom see a potential threat of natural gas bans.  

This Massachusetts example is explained in “Sweeping Mass. climate law revives gas ban battle” (Mar. 29). The broader battle which is forming across the U.S.is described in “Developers clash with  U.S. Cities on vote for greener building codes” in The Energy Mix, and in “A Texas city had a bold new climate plan – until a gas company got involved” in The Guardian (March 1).   The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) describes how this conflict is playing out at the International Code Council (ICC), which sets model building code standards, and which “just threw out the elections process by which state and local government officials recently overcame powerful commercial interests to secure large energy savings.”