Workers who respond to wildfires – some news you might have missed

The Columbia Journalism Review published an article on November 1: “What journalists miss when covering the California fires” . It states “we discuss celebrities and show pyro-pornography to capture attention. …. journalists could also use the borrowed interest to discuss bigger environmental consequences impacting people inside (and sometimes outside) of California.”

firefight in smokeHere are some articles which  focus on the impacts for working people in California and Canada, especially first responders and health care workers.  A previous WCR article,  “What happens to workers when wildfires and natural disasters hit?”  appeared in December 2017, after the Fort McMurray wildfires in Alberta.

California:

At PG&E, a workforce on edge — and under attack — as fire season arrives” in the San Francisco Chronicle (June 8) describes how front line workers are suffering harassment because the public blames their employer, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, for the 2018 Camp fire, as well as for the disruptions of their planned power outages to avoid sparking more fires.

A blog post  Power Shutoffs: Playing with Fire summarizes the issue of California power shutoffs and includes anecdotal reports from a  focus group study of home health care and nursing home workers, which  found that lack of communication was a common problem as they try to care for or evacuate their vulnerable patients.  The focus group was convened by the Emerald Cities Collaborative and SEUI2015.

Home healthcare in the Dark : Why Climate, Wildfires and Other Emerging Risks Call for Resilient Energy Storage Solutions to Protect Medically Vulnerable Households from Power Outages. This report published by Clean Energy Group and Meridian Institute in June 2019  identifies the problems associated with unreliable power when the electric grid goes down either through disaster or through  planned power outages to prevent wildfires. The report  makes a series of recommendations directed at policy makers, including:  “truly resilient power should be generated onsite, should not be dependent on supply chains that may be disrupted during catastrophic events”.

Getty fire: Housekeepers and gardeners go to work despite the flames” in the LA Times which also highlights the chaos brought by lack of communication, and the need for low-wage workers to work, despite danger.

International Association of Firefighters press release “California Members Work around the Clock to Contain Wildfires” provides an overview of  wildfire fighting by their members and points out that firefighters’ homes may also be in the path of destruction. (a fact that is true for other essential workers such as  health care workers).

“As fires rage, California refines an important skill: Evacuating” in the Washington Post (Oct. 29).  Describes the challenges of first responders responsible for vulnerable patients in hospitals.

New threats put wildfire fighters health on the line”  in the New York Times points out : “While burning wood poses some threat to lungs, man-made products and the gases and particles they produce when burned are far more dangerous…Unlike urban firefighters dealing with structural blazes, these wildfire responders do not wear heavy gear that filters air or provides clean air because the gear is unwieldy and too limited to allow the kind of multi-hour, high-exertion efforts demanded on the front lines of these large outdoor infernos.”

And from 2017, “Suicide rate among wildland firefighters is “astronomical”” in Wildfire Today  , based on a more substantial article in The Atlantic: “A Quiet Rise in Wildland-Firefighter Suicides”

 

Canada:

Climate change is making wildfires in Canada bigger, hotter and more dangerous”  in Maclean’s (July 18 2019) is a quick overview of the Canadian experience.

We were blindsided: Rappel firefighters criticizes UCP for axing program  in the Edmonton Journal  (Nov. 7) and an article in the newspaper Fort McMurray Today react to the Alberta government cuts which will eliminate the 40-year-old rappelling program, which employs more than 60 firefighters who rappel from helicopters into forest fires. Staffing for close to 30 wildfire lookout towers and one air tanker unit will also be cut. The articles describe the dangerous job of fighting fires.

A  British Columbia government press release at the end of October 2019 announces two research projects underway to study  firefighter health and wellness (including its physical, mental and emotional dimensions).  One at the University of Northern B.C. is a scoping study to contribute to a long-term research strategy for worker health by the B.C. Wildfire Service. The second, supported by the government of Alberta,  is examining the nature and concentration of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the air that firefighters breathe and accumulate on their skin. This study will also “explore the practicality and effectiveness of firefighters using respiratory protective equipment; and investigate whether wildland firefighters have more chronic lung disease than other people of the same age, gender and geographic location.” A progress report on the initial phase of this project is expected in March 2020.

“Fire-weary Western Canadians are picking up stakes and moving on” in the National Observer (June 24  2019)considers the impact of smoke as well as fire over the past two years in the West, discussing how “residents … young and old, often on fixed or limited incomes, are making tough choices about where they want to live and to work. The decisions are being informed by many factors, but often the most pressing concern is the increasing frequency of forest fires.”  (This updates some of the themes of a 2017 Globe and Mail article “Fort MacMurray wildfires leaves livelihoods in limbo” ).

Unions have made consistent and significant donations to wildfire-affected communities.  Some examples: “Steelworkers Humanity Fund Contributes $69,000 to Fort McMurray Recovery” (2016); “Steelworkers Contribute $100,000 to B.C. Fire Relief” (August 2017),  and Steelworkers Humanity Fund Contributes $58,950 to Support Disaster Recovery Here and Abroad (June 2019) –  which specifies a $10,000  donation to the  High Level Native Friendship Centre food bank in Northern Alberta after  forest fires caused  the evacuation of the town.  Also,  “Unifor wildfire relief donations top $220k” in 2017, and  a 2018 press release announced $150,000 to the B.C. Fire Relief Fund of the Canadian Red Cross in 2018 through Unifor’s Canadian Community Fund  as well as its Social Justice Fund .

Alberta government proposes to snatch away joint governance of public sector workers’ pension funds

The UCP government in Alberta has made the unilateral decision to consolidate Alberta public sector pensions under the control of the Alberta Investment Management Corporation, a crown corporation administered by the provincial government . According to an article in the Calgary Herald,  “Unions blast provincial decision to shift billions in public sector pension funds” : “(The) government intends to reverse the option of public sector pension plans leaving AIMCo as a fund manager. Moreover, the Alberta Teachers Retirement Fund, Workers’ Compensation Board and Alberta Health Services will be expected to transfer funds to AIMCo for management, reducing redundant administration.” More details appeared  in  “Government contemplates changes to management of more than 400,000 Alberta workers’ pension plans” in the Edmonton Journal (Nov. 1) which summarizes the opposition  by the Alberta public sector unions on the grounds that the decision reverses a recent change that gave more than 351,000 public sector employees joint control of their pension funds, through  a joint governance model that had been authorized by 2018 legislation and which only took effect in March 2019.  The Edmonton Journal article also states that police and firefighter pensions might also be included in the government plans.  “Alberta’s public unions prep for a fight, whether in the streets or the courts” is a broader overview from CBC Calgary which discusses the pension consolidation, as well as the wage cuts and workforce reduction included in Bill 21 of the new budget under the new UCP government.

ccpa-bc_fossilpensions_june2018-thumbnail (1)The attempt to shift Alberta workers’ pension funds brings to mind the 2018 report, Canada’s Fossil-Fuelled Pensions: The Case of the British Columbia Investment Management Corporation by the Corporate Mapping Project.  The report found that  despite its statements that it was a climate responsible investor, BCI had actually increased its  fossil fuel investments – for example, by boosting investment from $36.7 million in 2016 to $65.3 million in 2017  in Kinder Morgan, owner of the Trans-Mountain pipeline.  And although the new publication by the Corporate Mapping Project,  Big Oil’s Political Reach: Mapping fossil fuel lobbying from Harper to Trudeau, examines the power of the fossil fuel industry at the federal level, some might argue that its influence could also extend to Alberta’s pension management decisions.

 

Canada Pension Plan Investment Board shifting toward renewables; new study shows fossil fuel investments lose value

Canadian workers can hope that climate change awareness is finally dawning  at the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB), responsible for the financial health of the Canadian public pension system. On November 4, a CPPIB press release announced that the Board entered into a purchase agreement with Pattern Energy Group Inc. ; the Globe and Mail describes the deal in  “CPPIB bets on renewable energy with $2.63-billion purchase of wind-farm operator Pattern Energy” . cppib 2019 report This would demonstrate a big leap for the CPPIB, which reported in its  2019 Report on Sustainable Investing, released on November 6,  “CPPIB’s investments in global renewable energy companies more than doubled to $3 billion in the year to June 30, 2019. This is up from just $30 million in 2016.”  The annual Report includes other details, including a description of the new climate change investing framework, launched in April 2019.   Bloomberg News video channel  (Nov. 5) offers an interview with the CEO  of CPPIB discussing the CPPIB climate risk strategy, and providing the good news that the CPPIB will not participate in the expected blockbuster fossil fuel public offering by  Saudi Aramco.

Changes to public sector pensions in Alberta

One hopes that the Alberta government may also invest in that province’s growing renewable energy industries, as it has made the unilateral decision to consolidate Alberta public sector pensions under the control of the Alberta Investment Management Corporation, a crown corporation administered by the provincial government . According to an article in the Calgary Herald,  “Unions blast provincial decision to shift billions in public sector pension funds” : “(The) government intends to reverse the option of public sector pension plans leaving AIMCo as a fund manager. Moreover, the Alberta Teachers Retirement Fund, Workers’ Compensation Board and Alberta Health Services will be expected to transfer funds to AIMCo for management, reducing redundant administration.” More details appeared  in  “Government contemplates changes to management of more than 400,000 Alberta workers’ pension plans” in the Edmonton Journal (Nov. 1) which summarizes the opposition  by the Alberta public sector unions on the grounds that the decision reverses a recent change that gave more than 351,000 public sector employees joint control of their pension funds  – a joint governance model that had been authorized by 2018 legislation under the previous NDP government, and which only took effect in March 2019.  The Edmonton Journal article also states that police and firefighter pensions might also be included in their plans.  “Alberta’s public unions prep for a fight, whether in the streets or the courts” is a broader overview from CBC Calgary which discusses the pension consolidation, as well as the wage cuts and workforce reduction included in Bill 21 of the new budget under the new UCP government.

The dangers of investing pension funds to prop up the Alberta fossil fuel industry are indicated by a recent study of three major state public pension funds in California and Colorado (CalSTRS, CalPERS and PERA) . “Study Shows Pension Funds’ Refusal to Divest From Fossil Fuels Cost Retired Teachers, Firefighters, and Public Workers $19 Billion”  appeared in  Common Dreams  on November 5,  summarizing a study by Canadian publisher Corporate Knights.  Their analysis concluded that those three pension funds collectively lost over $19 billion in retirement savings for teachers, state troopers and public workers by continuing to invest in fossil fuels.  The full reports are not available yet on the Corporate Knights website, but are on Google Drive here .  A response by 350.org  also summarizes the study,  calls fossil fuel investments  “a Losing Strategy for Retirement Savings  — and the Planet” and asks “Why would any fund manager continue to invest in fossil fuels? Risky, harmful to our planet and shared future, and less profitable than many other investment opportunities, fossil fuel investments are a lose-lose choice.”

 

Alberta updates: Budget targets public sector, sets stage for new regime for oil and gas industry

With the federal election over, the provincial government in Alberta released two important new policies:  the Budget statement on October 26 , and the Technology Innovation and Emissions Reduction (TIER) regulation, a system for  output-based carbon pricing for industrial GHG emissions.

Alberta Budget – a recipe for a “Kenny Recession”?:

A government press release   announced the budget on October 26, with Highlights provided at a  Budget webpage here . The government states that social service programs: “will be redesigned methodically and responsibly to address economic, social and fiscal challenges, while continuing to support the most vulnerable. Countering that statement is “Alberta wants to cut public service wages. It will hit everyone from teachers to hospital support staff” in the National Observer (Oct. 30) , as well as reaction from the unions, including the Health Sciences Association of Alberta  (HSAA)  , which calls the Budget “incredibly dishonest” and details the cuts which form “the groundwork to justify a transfer of vital public services to the private sector”.  The Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) campaign against the Budget flies under the flag of “The Kenney Recession” , with arguments built on a report prepared for the AFL by  economist Hugh Mackenzie:  The Kenney Recession: Proposed UCP cuts would hurt economy worse than oil price crash .  The report considers four different scenarios and states “ “The loss of 50,000 jobs during the oil price crash from 2014 to 2017 will pale in comparison to the estimated 113,500 jobs that would be lost in Alberta if the Kenney government goes ahead with cuts of the magnitude being considered.”   In an earlier press release, AFL President Gil McGowan disputes the  findings of a government-commissioned report by Janice MacKinnon, saying “her report is filled with distortions and outright lies about public services, public-sector spending and public-sector wages.”

As for the Budget’s impact on the energy sector, the government’s Highlights state an allocation of $601 million, yet do not directly mention the Coal Workforce Transition Program or Fund,  initiated by the previous NDP government  and flagged for concern in an October 15 article in The Energy Mix .

The Government’s Budget Highlights for  the Energy industry are:

increase focus on natural gas and pipelines by implementing a strategic plan to help reinvigorate the industry and stand up for Alberta’s economic interests

work with industry to help streamline project approvals, improve pipeline access and facilitate the construction of infrastructure to get our natural gas to international markets

review the Alberta Energy Regulator to identify changes and enhancements to its mandate, governance and operations so Alberta remains a predictable place to invest and a world leader in responsible resource development

extend the royalty credit model under the Petrochemicals Diversification Program to incent future projects and cancel the Partial Upgrading Program and Petrochemicals Feedstock Program to reduce the financial risk to Albertans

cancel the transition to a capacity market and end the rate cap program – saving Albertans about $270 million

cancel the crude-by-rail program, saving Albertans at least $300 million

establish the Canadian Energy Centre corporation to implement the “Fight Back Strategy” to proactively defend our critical energy industry and the people who work in it

TIER – the proposed new Emissions Reduction Regulation for industrial emitters: 

On October 29, the government announced the introduction of Bill 19, the Technology Innovation and Emissions Reduction Implementation Act (TIER)  , characterized in the press release  as ” the centrepiece of government’s upcoming climate strategy, .. an improved system to help energy-intensive facilities find innovative ways to reduce emissions and invest in clean technology to stay competitive and save money. TIER is a unique solution that allows the province to reduce emissions without interference from Ottawa.”

Reaction comes in  “Alberta bets the house on technology to help province slash carbon pollution” in the National Observer , and in a lengthly  Opinion piece by Andrew Leach, “Alberta’s TIER regulations good on electricity, not so good on oilsands” at the CBC. Leach  characterizes the TIER policy as “a serious greenhouse gas policy in Alberta” but states that it is “backwards”:  “TIER makes emissions-reducing innovation less advantageous than it would be under CCIR [the existing system], since the better performing your new facility is, the lower your emissions credits will be every year for as long as the policy remains in place. “

The Smart Prosperity Institute  provides an explanation of the complexities of the proposed system, which if passed, would take effect in January 2020:  “TIER in a nutshell – The Alberta Technology Innovation and Emissions Reduction regulation” (Oct. 30) . More briefly, CBC published  “How Alberta will keep its $30-per-tonne carbon tax but make it easier for some big emitters to avoid paying” .

Coal transition funds announced for Alberta and Saskatchewan communities

On June 28, the federal government announced funding of $4,489,100 through the Canada Coal Transition Initiative.  Details of the funded projects – four in Alberta and five in Saskatchewan –  are listed in the Backgrounder . The Saskatchewan projects include establishing a solar installation training program in Estevan; development of business retention and expansion plans for Weyburn, Estevan, Moose Jaw and Coronach; and an economic and employment impact analysis with a regional strategic economic mitigation plan to support the Coronach & Region Coal Transition Initiatives. The Canada Coal Transition Initiative is a $35 million, five-year strategic fund to support skills development and economic diversification activities for workers and communities impacted by the government’s February 2018 decision to phase out traditional coal-fired electricity generation by 2030.

Since the June 28 announcements, brief reactions  have appeared: “Federal government gives $1.2M to Sask. groups to phase out coal” at CBC Saskatchewan; “Feds announce funding for coal energy transition in Saskatchewan, Alberta”which quotes a United Mineworkers spokesperson and the official province of Saskatchewan response;  “Leduc, Parkland counties among recipients of federal coal transition handout” in the Edmonton Journal, and  “Edmonton-area counties get help from Ottawa for coal transition” at CBC Edmonton.

The June 28 funding press release also  states:

In response to the Task Force on Just Transition for Canadian Coal Power Workers and Communities, the Government of Canada intends to:

Create worker transition centres (funded through Budget 2018);

Explore new ways to protect wages and pensions; and

Create a $150 million infrastructure fund, beginning 2020-21, for impacted communities, administered by Western Economic Diversification Canada and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.

Boundary Dam facility estevan

Boundary Dam facility in Estevan -photo by Don Healy / Regina Leader-Post) 

How the coal transition is impacting the communities across Canada is evident from the What we heard from Canadian coal power workers and communities report which accompanied the release of the Final Report of the Task Force on Just Transition for Canadian Coal Power Workers and Communities in January 2019.  Climate Justice Saskatoon has also published the results of its interviews with people in Estevan and Coronach in its Bridging the Gap project.   Articles have also appeared: “Estevan, Sask. preparing for coal phase-out putting hundreds of jobs at risk”  at Global News (May 2019)  is a profile of the community;  “Saskatchewan reaches agreement with Ottawa to cut power-generation emissions”(January 2019) outlines the agreement reached between the federal and provincial government, allowing  Boundary Dam Three near Estevan to continue beyond 2030, thanks to its nearly $1.5 billion Carbon Capture and Storage  retrofit.