Alberta elects United Conservative Party, promising a new climate policy, and to fight for the oil and gas industry

jason kenneyCitizens of the province of Alberta woke up to a new government on April 17th, with the election of the United Conservative Party (UCP), led by Jason Kenney.  After what Macleans magazine called  The most visceral Alberta election campaign in memory and CBC called “toxic” and “divisive” , the UCP election platform , Alberta Strong and Free  will begin to unfold, based on the promise to “ fight without relent to build pipelines. We will stand up for Alberta and demand a fair deal in Canada. We will fight back against the foreign funded special interests who are trying to landlock our energy.”  Ontarians will recognize much of the same rhetoric as that of  the Doug Ford Conservative government, including  cancellation of the “job-killing carbon tax”;  an “open for business” approach  to “cut red tape”, including worker protection; and creating jobs – in Alberta’s case, oil and gas jobs.

The CBC analysis of the election outlines further implications for the rest of Canada in  ” Jason Kenney won big — and the Ottawa-Alberta relationship is about to get unruly” , which highlights Kenney’s  combative style, his antipathy to the current Liberal government of Justin Trudeau,  and his close connections with the federal Conservative party (having served in Stephen Harper’s government).  The National Observer, on the morning after, sums up what to expect: “Jason Kenney’s United Conservatives issue warning to Suzuki Foundation after winning Alberta majority” , which also touches on what progressives can expect:  ”… the premier-designate delivered a warning to environmentalists, accusing them of being funded by foreign interests who are trying to shut down the Alberta oil and gas industry. He pledged to launch a public inquiry into their activities, singling out several charitable organizations including the David Suzuki Foundation  and the Tides Foundation …”

From Alberta: Calgary Herald election coverage  is triumphant, including Columnist Chris Varcoe with “Expectations are high as Kenney gives voice to Alberta’s angst“; Lucia Corbella with  “Kenney the Ironman performs miracle on the Prairies”In“Jason Kenney’s united right wins big, dashing NDP dreams of a Rachel Notley repeat“, David Staples from the Edmonton Journal acknowledges that growing the oil industry  is “a difficult, complex, multi-dimensional battle” but  “when it comes to oil and gas policy Alberta hasn’t been this united in a generation.”  The majority of his Opinion piece discusses “the malignant force that helped to divide us, the “Tar Sands campaign” which saw tens of millions in funding coming from U.S. foundations dedicated to demonizing the oilsands and landlocking Alberta oil.” He calls on the NDP to support the UCP plan for a public inquiry into “foreign interference” and  states that the NDP, the federal Liberals, and groups such as the Pembina Institute and Greenpeace are tarnished by association with that “Tar Sands Campaign”.

Union voices were strong in the Alberta Election:  The  Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) was extremely active in support of the NDP, with a “Next Alberta” campaign built around the AFL  12 Point Plan.  With a very pragmatic orientation, the Plan makes no mention of “Just Transition” or coal phase-out, and emissions reduction is proposed in these terms:  “Reduce carbon emissions, as much as possible, from each barrel of oil produced in Alberta so, we can continue to access markets with increasingly stringent emission standards. ..Our goal should be to make sure that Alberta is last heavy oil producer standing in an increasingly carbon constrained world.”  The AFL also commissioned a report by Hugh Mackenzie: The Employment Impact of Election Promises: Analysis of budgetary scenarios of UCP and NDP platforms , which concluded:  “Under the Notley budget plan, 5500 jobs would be lost. Under the Kenny budget plan between 58,000-85,000 jobs would be lost – more than were lost in the recession of 2015-16.” President of the AFL, Gil McGowan, discussed the report in an Opinion Piece,  “How NOT to fix Alberta’s hurting jobs economy in The Tyee.

Unifor, the union which represents thousands of workers at oil producers Suncor, Imperial, Husky and Shell, also mounted  an active Unifor Votes campaign which acknowledges that “in oil and gas, our biggest customer has become our biggest competitor”.  Unifor calls for policies for  “Next Generation Energy Jobs” to invest in new pipeline infrastructure ;  diversify and upgrade in the oil and gas sector and ” Use our resource wealth as a springboard to the future.”

Stepping back, here are some of the  articles which appeared during the election campaign, and which summarize the environmental and economic issues:  “Eleven Ignored Issues that Albertans Should Think about Before They Vote” (April 12), by  Andrew Nikoforuk, outlining :  the risks of global oil price volatility; the need for economic diversification; the growing fiscal pressure on oil-producing states; the cost of climate change; the need to promote a leaner and more local economy as opposed to the boom-and-bust one; Alberta’s failure to collect its fair share of profits from bitumen production; and, hanging over them all, the risk of economic collapse.”  In  “Analysis: Alberta Misses Out On Grown-Up Conversation About Fossil Transition” ,  Mitchell Beer of The Energy Mix compiles the statements from Nikoforuk, as well as economists Mark Jaccard, Vaclav Smil,  and columnist Gary Mason, concluding with: “ Smart, resourceful, and tech-enabled a place as it is, “too many in Alberta want to believe that a new pipeline will fix all that ails the province,” Mason writes . “That’s a fantasy, one that even the political leaders running to govern the province understand (but won’t admit publicly).” And several blogs from the Parkland Institute examine the implications for workers, including “UCP Platform will drive down wages”  .

Alberta Federation of Labour’s 12-point Plan, and the art of communicating Just Transition

AFL-Final-logoThe Alberta Federation of Labour has launched a campaign “by and for Alberta’s workers” in advance of the provincial election in Spring 2019. The  Next Alberta Campaign website compares the party platforms of the NDP and the United Conservative Party (UCP) , characterized as  “pragmatists” and “dinosaurs” – with a clear preference for the pragmatist NDP platform.  In a March 13 press release, the AFL also released their own 12 Point Plan with this introduction by Gil McGowan, AFL President : “The old policy prescriptions of corporate tax cuts and deregulation .. are particularly ill-suited to the challenges we face today. And simply waiting for the next boom, as Alberta governments have done for decades, is not an option because it probably won’t happen. Like it or not, our future is going to be defined by change. So, the priority needs to be getting our people and our economy ready for that change, instead of sticking our heads in the sand.”

What exactly does the AFL propose?  Their 12 Point Plan includes initiatives around five themes: Support Alberta’s oil & gas industry; Diversify the economy; Invest in Infrastructure; Invest in people (by investing in public services, including expanding medicare, child care and free tuition, and expanding pension plans); and Protect Workers’ Rights.  With a very pragmatic orientation, the document has no mention of “Just Transition” or coal phase-out, and emissions reduction is proposed in these terms:  “Reduce carbon emissions, as much as possible, from each barrel of oil produced in Alberta so, we can continue to access markets with increasingly stringent emission standards.” 

On the issue of the oil and gas industry, the Plan states:

We need to build new pipelines to access markets other than the U.S.

We need to incentivize and support oil and gas companies in their efforts to reduce emissions so we can continue to access markets with increasingly stringent environmental standards.

Our goal should be to make sure that Alberta is last heavy oil producer standing in an increasingly carbon constrained world.

On the issue of Infrastructure, the 12-Point Plan calls for:

procurement policies need to be revamped, for example, to use Community Benefit Agreements which emphasize the public interest by awarding contracts to companies that hire local, buy local and achieve thresholds related to environmental, social, and economic factors.

companies and contractors working on public infrastructure projects need to comply with labour standards, provide fair pay, and provide training for Albertans.

Research into communicating energy policies:   The Alberta Narrative Project  released a report,  Communicating Climate Change and Energy in Alberta  in February,  documenting Albertan’s voices on issues of climate change, oil sands, politics, and more.  Some highlights are cited in  “Lessons in talking climate with Albertan Oil Workers” (Feb. 21), including:

“In Alberta, recognising the role that oil and gas has played in securing local livelihoods proved crucial. Most environmentalists would balk at a narrative of ‘gratitude’ towards oil, but co-producing an equitable path out of fossil fuel dependency means making oil sands workers feel valued, not attacked. Empathic language that acknowledges oil’s place in local history could therefore be the key to cultivating support for decarbonisation.

…..This project was also one of the first to test language specifically on energy transitions. While participants were generally receptive to the concept, the word ‘just’, with its social justice connotations, proved to be anything but politically neutral. In an environment where attitudes towards climate are bound to political identities, many interviewees showed a reluctance to the idea of government handouts, even where an unjust transition would likely put them out of a job. Rather, the report recommends a narrative of ‘diversification’ rather than ‘transition’, stressing positive future opportunities instead of moving away from a negative past.”

The Alberta Narratives Project is part of the global Climate Outreach Initiative,  whose goal is to understand and train communicators to deliver effective communications which lead to cooperative approaches.  The Alberta Narratives Project, with lead partners The Pembina Institute and Alberta Ecotrust,  coordinated  75 community  organizations to host 55  facilitated “Narrative Workshops” around the province, engaging an unusually  broad spectrum of people: farmers, oil sands workers, energy leaders, business leaders, youth, environmentalists, New Canadians and others.

pembina energy alberta 2019Pembina Institute communications seem to reflect the goal of an inclusive, constructive tone. For example, their pre-election report,  Energy Policy Leadership in Alberta , released on March 8, makes recommendations regarding renewable energy, energy efficiency,  coal phase-out, methane regulation, and “legislating an emissions reduction target for Alberta that is consistent with ensuring Canada meets its international obligations under the Paris climate agreement.”  Also, Pricing Carbon Pollution in Alberta (March 8), which places carbon pricing in the history of the province since 2007, stresses the benefits, and makes recommendations relevant to the current political debate.

 

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.