Alberta unveils its Just Transition plan for coal workers

On November 10, the government of  Alberta released the Recommendations of the Advisory Panel on Coal Communities – 35 recommendations to promote a just transition from coal-mining, necessitated  by the government’s Climate Leadership Plan to phase-out coal-fired electricity by 2030.  The Advisory Panel focuses on three areas: workers, communities and First Nations. The 18 recommendations regarding workers relate to income security and replacement, pension security, retraining and re-employment – and recommend a strong role for unions in planning and process.  Some examples:  … “Programs and training should be delivered, as much as possible, while workers are currently employed and should include accessible and flexible skills development models. This includes a role for employers to enable access to skills development during employment.”… “Employers and unions should play roles in facilitating the training or retraining of impacted workers. This could be reflected in employer cost sharing with government and union participation in planning and delivery of assistance.”… Where provisions are inadequate, facilitate the negotiation of severance provisions between employers and unions that represent workers at coal-fired facilities and associated coal mines. Similar negotiations should be facilitated for non-union employees. …Where provisions are inadequate, facilitate the negotiation of early retirement benefits between employers and unions that represent workers at coal-fired facilities and associated coal mines. Similar negotiations should be facilitated for non-union employees. …Immediately assess the direct impact of the transition on the funded status, solvency and operation of defined-benefit pension plans and take steps to ensure these plans are adequately funded. ”

In  a separate press release , the government announced more details about  a $40-million transition fund for workers and communities.  As described on the government website , benefits will include financial support for retraining (still under development), on-site employment counselling for individuals, and the provision of facilitators to  assist employers, employees and unions to establish a worker adjustment committee to develop a workplace transition plan, using labour market information or commissioned regional labour market studies.  In addition, Alberta is calling on the federal government to make changes to the Employment Insurance (EI) program immediately, so that the provincial  income support will not reduce their EI income,  and to also extend the duration of EI benefits for coal workers.

The Coal Transition Coalition project, an alliance of unions led by the Alberta Federation of Labour, had previously published its recommendations in  “Getting it Right: A Just Transition Strategy for Alberta’s Coal workers.  The AFL response to the government’s announcements on November 10  calls the Transition Plan “a step in the right direction” and credits the Advisory Panel with listening to workers’  input.  President Gil McGowan warns, however, that   “Offering bridging supports to workers on EI and extending the benefit period for workers close to retirement are important elements of the plan, but they depend on the federal government doing their part,” … “Many coal-fired units in Alberta are closing due to federal government regulatory changes. They have a responsibility to these workers to help ensure a just transition.”

Union Proposals for a Just Transition for Alberta’s coal workers

The phase-out  of the Alberta’s  coal -fired electricity generation  is in the works, with regulations begun by the Harper government and continued by the current provincial government in its Climate Leadership Plan  . Approximately 3,000 workers at 18 coal-fired electricity plants and their associated mines will be affected by the end of the phase-out in 2030.  In September 2016, consultant Terry Boston submitted recommendations to the government on how to transition the electricity supply; for public consultation about transition issues for workers and communities, an  Advisory Panel on Coal Communities  was established, and is scheduled to release its report “in early Spring 2017”.

On March 3, the union-based  Coal Transition Coalition  unveiled its detailed policy recommendations for the Advisory Panel.    Getting it Right: A Just Transition Strategy for Alberta’s Coal Workers , aims  to influence discussion early on in the planning process,  to ensure that issues such as  pensions, severance, labour-retention strategies and

coal transition coalition

Coal Transition Coalition logo

economic diversification are built in from the start. Getting it Right chronicles government policies and the coal mines to be affected, then describes in detail four case study examples of coal transitions in the U.S. and the Rhuhr Valley in Germany .  These case studies form the basis of the    “Lessons learned”  section, which in turn form the basis of the recommendations.

The Coalition’s recommendations emphasize  the advantage of a long-lead time available, the importance of unique, community-led plans, and the importance of public and political acceptance of the Transition programs.  Income replacement and severance benefits are a central concern – calling for enhanced federal Employment Insurance program benefits, and a provincial pension bridging trust fund with adequate reserves to help workers just shy of retirement in 2030. The Coalition also recommends that the province conduct an audit of existing pensions and their coverage and gaps, and prepare a plan to ensure pensions are fully funded and mandated to  meet their obligations.  The report cites a separate report commissioned by the Alberta Federation of Labour, Pension And Benefit Plans In A Just Transitions Strategy For The Alberta Coal-Fired Electricity Industry (November 2016)), which is not available online.

The core recommendation is to establish an Alberta Economic Adjustment Agency , free of political interference, to develop “a just transition plan that places the interests of affected workers, their families and communities as its highest priority”.  Programs would be funded through an  Alberta Economic Adjustment Trust Fund, governed by an independent board of trustees to guard against any  political or industry interference, and financed through  contributions “on the order of $10 million to $20 million per year” leading up to 2030.   The report is silent on who will provide the funding.

The Coal Transition Coalition is led by the Alberta Federation of Labour and includes the following unions:  Canadian Energy Workers Association, CSU 52, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers,   Ironworkers Local 720 , Unifor, United Steelworkers, and United Utility Workers Association.

Alberta Federation of Labour and the Conference Board agree: Refineries provide jobs

A report by the Conference Board of Canada, Is There Value In Adding Value: An Assessement of the Sturgeon Refinery,  released on December 5, evaluates the business case of the first phase of the Sturgeon Refinery in northeastern Alberta,  designed to process 78,630 barrels per day of dilbit.  The Conference Board uses macroeconomic modelling to conclude that there will be long-term positive effects of the construction and operation of the refinery, in increased GDP, government revenues, and employment opportunities. For the construction phase alone, the report estimates 75,884 person-years of total employment impacts; the operation phase is estimated to contribute 6,658 full-time jobs for the life of the refinery.   An Alberta Federation of Labour  press release  quotes  president Gil McGowan:   “This report confirms what we’ve been saying for years — that adding value to our resources through upgrading and refining makes sense for the province and for the country” .  The AFL had commissioned a report in 2014, In-Province Upgrading Economics of a Greenfield Oil Sands Refinery  , which examined  the potential economics of in-province upgrading of oil sands produced within Alberta.

Proposals for Alberta: Job creation and a healthier environment

A new report from the Pembina Institute, in cooperation with Blue Green Canada and the Alberta Federation of Labour, discusses the employment potential for renewables in Alberta – and concludes that investing in renewable sources of electricity and energy efficiency would generate more jobs than would be lost through the retirement of coal power. Further jobs still could be created by additional investment in community energy, and further jobs again by investing in long-term infrastructure and electricity grids. Job Growth in Clean Energy – Employment in Alberta’s emerging renewables and energy efficiency sectors   provides detailed statistics and  includes a major section on methodology; Pembina’s job estimates are higher than those of the Alberta government, partly because Pembina’s modelling includes solar energy while the government’s estimates are understood to be based on extrapolating from Alberta’s historic experience with wind. The report makes policy recommendations relevant to the Climate Leadership Plan and the current Energy Diversification Advisory Committee and encourages a speed-up of the phase-out of coal-fired electricity.  (See also a related Pembina report, Canada and Coal at COP22: Tracking the global momentum to end coal-fired power –and why Canada should lead the way ).

A worker-generated  proposal for job creation and GHG reduction is described by Andrew Nikoforuk in “A Bold Clean-Up Plan for Alberta’s Giant Oil Industry Pollution Liabilities” in   The Tyee (Nov. 4)    . The author summarizes the RAFT plan proposed by two workers from Grande Prairie, Alberta.  Reclaiming Alberta’s Future Today (RAFT)   is “a plan for the unionized abandonment, decommissioning,and reclamation of Alberta’s aging and expired fossil fuel infrastructure over the next 50 years…” The Plan begins with a proposal for an expert analysis of the state of liabilities from inactive oil and gas wells and abandoned pipelines – including analysis of the health and environmental effects, and the existing mechanisms to address the problem.

Recommendations by House of Commons committee is at odds with GHG reduction

The House of Commons Standing Committee on Natural Resources  released its second report, The Future of Canada’s Oil and Gas Sector: Innovation, sustainable solutions and economic opportunities  on September 21. The report summarizes the comments from 33 witnesses who appeared before the committee in 7 meetings, and makes recommendations, including: “1. The Committee recommends that the Government of Canada continue to promote the benefits of investing in Canada’s Natural Resources sectors, including oil and gas, which shall include the continued encouragement of innovation, research and development.” And “2.The Committee recommends that the Government of Canada work in collaboration with industry and the indigenous, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments to develop the supporting infrastructure needed to create a favourable environment for natural resource development and transportation, and to deliver oil and gas products to strategic domestic and international markets.”    The Dissenting Report from the Conservative members goes even further to support the fossil fuel industry, making 5 recommendations which include:   “We strongly encourage the government not to impose any additional tax or regulation on the oil and gas sector or the Canadian consumer that our continental trading partners and competitors do not have. This includes measuring the upstream greenhouse gas emissions from pipelines…”  The Opinion statement by the New Democratic Party members of the Committee calls for speedy, permanent changes to the National Energy Board assessment process, and for the Government to honour its obligation for a Nation to Nation relationship with Indigenous peoples, including proper consultation and accommodation on all energy projects and the protection of Indigenous rights.   The NDP also states its support for the testimony of Gil McGowan, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour, calling for support for  value-added development of the oil and gas industry, “because these kinds of investments not only create jobs directly in upgrading, refining, and petrochemicals but also create other jobs”.

Contrast these recommendations with the message released on the next day, September 22,  by Oil Change International in its report,  The Sky’s Limit  .  The report states that developed reserves of oil and gas alone would take the world beyond 1.5°C, even if coal were phased out immediately, and lists examples of some of the biggest projects around the world that cannot go ahead – in the U.S., Canada, Australia, India, Russia, Qatar and Iran .   It concludes that “To stay within our carbon budgets, we must go further than stopping new construction: some fossil fuel extraction assets must be closed before they are exploited fully. These early shut-downs should occur predominantly in rich countries.”   (This urgency is in the spirit of a recent Dutch parliamentary vote in favour of closing down all remaining coal-generation power plants, even though 3 of them were just opened in 2015: see the article in The Guardian ).

The Sky’s the Limit states further, “extraction should not continue where it violates the rights of local people – including indigenous peoples – nor should it continue where resulting pollution would cause intolerable health impacts or seriously damage biodiversity.”  Finally, in a discussion of Just Transition, “ The most critical questions lie in how industry and policymakers will conduct an orderly and managed decline of fossil fuel extraction, with robust planning for economic and energy diversification.”