Oil well clean-up can create jobs – but not the way Alberta spent Green Recovery funding

The Big Cleanup: How enforcing the Polluter Pay principle can unlock Alberta’s next great jobs boom was released in June by the Alberta Liabilities Disclosure Project . It makes thirteen recommendations, including the creation of an independent, non-profit Reclamation Trust to wind down end-of-life companies and use their remaining revenue to fund the cleanup of their wells. The report states that implementing all its recommendations will create 10,400 jobs and generate $750 million in wages, and contribute nearly $2 billion  Alberta’s Gross Domestic Product annually for the next 25 years.  The report also includes new calculations and analysis on the growing crisis of Alberta’s oil and gas well liabilities, stating that the average projected cost of cleaning up Alberta’s over 300,000 unreclaimed oil and gas wells is $55 billion dollars, with the top 20 Alberta municipalities alone facing $34 billion in cleanup liabilities in their boundaries.  

In April 2020, the government of Canada announced its Covid-19 Economic Response Plan, including  $1.72 billion  directed toward the cleanup of inactive and abandoned oil and gas infrastructure across the western provinces. $1 billion of this funding was directed to Alberta. Dianne Saxe, the former Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, had been one of the early critics of this program, for example in “Canada’s murky bail-out deal for oil and gas will cost us all”  ( National Observer, April 21).   In early July, a further evaluation was published by Oxfam Canada, the Parkland Institute, and the Corporate Mapping Project : Not Well Spent: A review of $1-billion federal funding to clean up Alberta’s inactive oil and gas wells .  The report finds some alarming failures on many fronts – including that the program is not tracking methane emissions, so it is impossible to determine the emissions reduction impact.  Author Megan Egler also cautiously argues that the public funds were used to accomplish what industry should have been responsible for, according to a polluter pays principle.   

One of the stated goals of Alberta’s $1 Billion Site Rehabilitation Program (SRP) was to create 5,300 jobs. However, Not Well Spent states: “ If this is met, funding of $1billion will create 5,300 jobs at $188,680 per job. This is $41,800 more per job than money injected into the industry through the Orphaned Well Association to do similar work in 2018. There has been no clear explanation from the Government of Alberta why the public dollars to create one job are higher in the SRP program.” The report also notes that 23% of the total amount of funds disbursed went to only five companies out of the 363; only 10% was allocated to clean-ups on Indigenous lands.  The author makes recommendations for improvement in future funding, to ensure better accountability and transparency, which would be more consistent with a “polluter pays” objective.

72% of surveyed oil and gas workers in Canada want career transition – with many willing to accept wage reduction

A survey of over 2,000 respondents from across Canada who had previously worked in the oil and gas industry found that 72% indicated that their career priority was to make a career transition. Of that 72%, “35% indicated their desired employment situation was in a different role or industry; 14% were seeking a different work arrangement such as self-employment; and 12% planned to seek employment after additional training.” The survey results are summarized in two blogs on March 30, Untapped Talent: Opportunity to Transition, and Untapped Talent, Transitioning Opportunity , from Canada’s oil and gas labour market organization, PetroLMI. The survey was conducted from October 2019 to December 2020.

While a resistance to lower wages is frequently cited as a barrier to Just Transition, the PetroLMI survey showed that: “the wage expectations of respondents were not out of line given their education, experience and skills. When asked about their salary expectations, 61% indicated a salary of less than $100,000, and 28% were willing to take a reduction in their salary for stable employment. In Alberta more than 35% of respondents said they were willing to take a salary reduction.”  42% of respondents were over the age of 55; 77% had over 15 years of experience; 86% had post-secondary education  –  in Alberta, most held a university, while in the rest of Canada, trade certification was most cited.

From the industry point of view: “While layoffs rarely have a silver lining, these workforce reductions mean there is a robust pool of talent available for hire.” “The layoffs that occurred among respondents were broad and impacted a wide range of job families and occupations from trades, truck drivers, technologists and technicians to geoscientists, engineers and information technologists. The talent pool also included occupations that tended to be transferable across industries including finance, accounting, human resources, health and safety, sales, marketing and business development. They also included field operations and drilling workers with transferable skills such as working in safety-sensitive workplaces, critical thinking and problem-solving. As a result, construction and renewable energy companies have begun hiring from this talent pool.”

Canada’s Petroleum Labour Market Institute (PetroLMI- formerly the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada)  produces ongoing labour market analysis, recently stating: “The cumulative impacts of a six-year economic downturn, lower demand due to COVID-19 health restrictions, and structural shifts in the oil and gas industry, mean there is a smaller oil and gas workforce in Canada – down 26%, or 58,700 jobs from its peak in 2014.” Their latest detailed labour market data, sourced from Statistics Canada, is here.  Analytical reports are compiled here,  including a four-part series titled “The Impact of COVID-19 on Canada’s Energy Workforce: A four-part series on work practices, productivity and opportunities”. On that topic, Norwegian consultancy Rystad Energy ranks Canada, U.S. and Australia as hardest hit in “Covid-19 job toll: Top O&G employer China resilient, US takes larger hit than European peers” , a March 9 newsletter.  (The Canadian Energy Research Institute also published Economic Recovery Pathways for Canada’s Energy Industry: Part 2 – Canadian Crude Oil and Natural Gas in September 2020, modelling employment and economic impacts) .

Only 18% of global Recovery spending in 2020 was green

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released Are We Building Back Better? Evidence from 2020 and Pathways for Inclusive Green Recovery Spending,    on March 10.  It estimates that in 2020, the world’s fifty largest economies announced USD14.6tn in fiscal measures to address the pandemic economic crisis, and states: …. “Excluding currently uncertain packages from the European Commission, 18.0% of recovery spending, and only 2.5% of total spending, is expected to enhance sustainability. The vast majority of green spending has come from a small set of high-income nations” with France, Germany and South Korea highlighted for their relatively high percentage of green recovery spending.  Canada’s spending is small, with only brief references which state that we have focused on “cleaning dirty energy assets”, and have made fossil fuel investment. (no details or examples given).  It is notable that the report covers 2020, so that U.S. spending is also low, though hope is expressed for the Biden/Harris administration.  Notably, the report looks to the future: “….. the largest window for green spending is only now opening, as nations shift attention from short-term rescue measures to recovery. Using examples from 2020 spending, we highlight five major green investment opportunities to be prioritised in 2021: green energy, green transport, green building upgrades & energy efficiency, natural capital, and green research and development.”    

Each of those topics is analyzed, with some exemplary policies highlighted. Some overarching issues: “Of particular note, despite continuing high global unemployment and widespread damage to human capital, spending on worker retraining in 2020 was small and almost exclusively non-green. Nations transitioning to a low-carbon economy must invest in human capital to enable and match future growth priorities. Structural changes in major sectors, including energy, agriculture, transport, and construction, require shifts in the structure and capabilities of the domestic labour force.”

Also, regarding “green strings”: “Although some dirty rescue-type expenditure may have been necessary to ensure that lives and livelihoods were saved, many of the largest of these policies could have included positive green attributes. For instance, airline bailouts in nations all over the world, including South Africa, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States could have included green conditions. Green conditions tied to liquidity support, like requirements to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 or mandates to increase sustainable fuel use, can ensure short term relief while also promoting investment in long-term technological development and acting as a strong guide in national efforts to meet climate targets.”

The report is supported by the United Nations UNEP, the International Monetary Fund and GIZ through the Green Fiscal Policy Network (GFPN). The data was collected by the Oxford University Economic Recovery Project and is now available through the Global Recovery Observatory, a new database which will be updated regularly (most recently at the end of February).

The report cites many other studies and reports, notably: “Will COVID-19 fiscal recovery packages accelerate or retard progress on climate change?” by Cameron Hepburn, Brian O’Callaghan, Nicholas Stern, Joseph Stiglitz, and Dimitri Zenghelis, which appeared in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy in May 2020.    .

Green Recovery includes proposals for Green Apprenticeships, Opportunity Guarantees for youth

In the midst of rampant youth unemployment in the U.K., An Emergency Plan on Green Jobs for Young People was released on March 1, commissioned by Friends of the Earth U.K. and prepared by Transition Economics consultants. The report puts flesh on the bones of a youth jobs guarantee – discussing the many issues, identifying green jobs and skills related to infrastructure, and estimating the level of funding required. That level of funding is compared to the cost of youth unemployment – the “wage scarring”.  Individual scarring is estimated at a loss of £42,000 – £133,000 in future wages over the next 20 years for an 18-20 year old who experiences one year of unemployment. The economic loss to the U.K. as a whole, if all currently unemployed youth stayed unemployed for 1 year, is estimated at £32 – £39 billion.

The solution proposed in the  Emergency Plan is the creation of 250,000 green apprenticeships in infrastructure-related jobs, rapidly rolled-out in England and Wales at an estimated cost of £6.2 – £10.6 billion over 5 years – a “tiny” cost compared to the burden of wage scarring. The report calls for “a green opportunity guarantee” that commits to ensure that all young people are offered a job, an apprenticeship, or training, and estimates that  “A government funded £40 billion-a-year green infrastructure programme would create over 1 million jobs, and deliver significant co-benefits.”   The report further calls for apprentice pay rates above the minimum wage, negotiated nationally with U.K. trade unions.

The idea of a green opportunity guarantee has also been advanced in Canada – notably in July 2020 by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in its  Alternative Federal Budget Green Recovery Plan . The CCPA proposed a  National Decarbonization Strategy with public investments in electricity generation, public transit, forestry and building and home retrofitting; part of the Strategy included “a Green Jobs Corps at a cost of $10 billion per year to create good green jobs that advance Canada’s decarbonization agenda. Among the corps’ priorities will be climate adaptation and environmental reclamation projects identified under the National Decarbonization Strategy. All youth under the age of 25 in Canada will be guaranteed either a job in the corps or access to subsidized training through the Strategic Training Fund.”

Similarly, a Submission by the Canadian Labour Congress in August stated:  “Following the experience of the European Union, the federal, provincial and territorial governments should establish a guarantee that all young people under the age of 25 will receive a good-quality offer of employment, continued education, an apprenticeship or a traineeship within a period of four months of becoming unemployed or leaving formal education. This could include a focus on providing decent jobs in land remediation and restoration, climate adaptation, and energy efficiency. It should also include green skills training and learning opportunities through partnerships with public education and training providers, with an emphasis on women, marginalized, low-income and at-risk youth.”  A similar proposal was made by the Smart Prosperity Institute, calling for the creation of  a Conservation and Adaptation corps as part of its Green Recovery proposals.  Smart Prosperity stated that the federal government funded 900 green internships in 2020 through the Science Horizons Youth Internship Program for STEM students, and calls on the government to go further with a youth  Conservation and Adaptation corps which “would offer the workforce needed to meet a number of environmental targets, including planting 2 billion trees, and could build the infrastructure needed to improve community resilience to climate impacts from flooding, fires and sea level rise.”

Federal government provides operational funding for public transit – as of 2026

In a press release on February 10,  Prime Minister Trudeau announced $14.9 billion in new funding for public transit, framed as “part of our plan to create one million jobs, fight climate change, and rebuild a more sustainable and resilient economy.”   A Backgrounder states that $5.9 billion will be distributed on a project-by-project basis starting in 2021 to encourage active transportation projects (e.g. bike paths, walkways), rural transit, and zero-emissions transit vehicles and infrastructure. The bulk of funding – $9 Billion – is dedicated to creating a permanent public transit fund of $3 billion per year, but not until 2026. The Backgrounder states: “Over the coming months, Infrastructure Canada will work with provinces, territories, municipalities, local governments, Indigenous communities, transit agencies, policy experts and other stakeholders to develop programming for the $3 billion in permanent public transit funding in a manner that offers the greatest benefits to Canadians from coast to coast to coast. Consultations on the design of the new permanent transit funding will begin in the near future to address how all orders of government can work in partnership to get the most out of investments in public transit.” 

This doesn’t answer the demands of the #Keep Transit Moving coalition, led by  the Council of Canadians and the David Suzuki Foundation. The Council of Canadians’ response was “Trudeau’s Transit Announcement throws Just Recovery under the Bus”.  It states: “Transit infrastructure spending is important and necessary, but the urgent need is for sustained operating funding. …The federal government’s focus on infrastructure at the expense of operational funding is a classic case of trying to appease social movements without making the needed changes.”  The COC also repeats its warnings against the use of public-private investment to fund transit, if money is directed through the Canada Infrastructure Bank . The Amalgamated Transit Union, facing historic ridership loss because of the pandemic, also expresses disappointment in their press release, which states: “What’s needed now is $400 million per month into emergency operational funding to cover losses at the farebox.”  The ATU acknowledges that the government has provided emergency operating funds through the Safe Restart Agreement , but those will soon expire, and other transit-related funding has been for capital projects and to support the EV bus manufacturers. 

The government’s transit funding was more favourably received by others: “Big City Mayors Cheer as Trudeau Offers Permanent Federal Transit Funding” (The Energy Mix, Feb.12); “Support for public transit is key to decarbonizing  transportation” (Pembina Institute, Feb. 11); and “Expanding and electrifying public transit exemplifies the recovery Canada needs” (Clean Energy Canada, Feb. 11).