$320 million federal aid to Newfoundland oil and gas industry, yet layoffs continue

On October 8, both Suncor and Husky Energy announced new layoffs in their Newfoundland oil and gas operations. A week earlier, there was an announcement by Irving Oil that it would not proceed with the purchase of the Come by Chance oil refinery -yet another blow to the floundering Newfoundland industry.  “Here’s what could happen if the Come By Chance refinery shuts its doors” (CBC, Oct 8) estimates potential job losses of 1,400 jobs when spin-off impacts are considered, if the plant is closed.  TradesNL, an umbrella organization of 16 building and construction trades unions in the province, which released this reaction to the news.  

Unifor has been lobbying for government aid for months – and on September 16, the union organized a public rally calling for government support. On September 25, the federal minister of Natural Resources answered the calls for help by announcing a $320 million aid package, to be targeted at safety, maintenance and upgrades, and at stimulating employment.  In a press release, Unifor states: “Unifor expects to see some of the funding be directed at long-overdue maintenance onboard the Terra Nova and Hibernia offshore facilities where 750 members of Unifor Local 2121 work.”  The decisions on how the $320 million will be spent will be guided by a new  Oil and Gas Industry Recovery Task Force, appointed by the provincial government on September 25 to “focus on immediate actions required to sustain the offshore industry in Newfoundland and Labrador and provide suggestions for how best to utilize the $320 million in funding from the Federal Government to maximize value for all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.”  To date, only the two co-Chairs have been appointed.

On September 24, the provincial government also announced “the establishment of a new offshore exploration initiative to provide companies with the incentive to drill more wells in the best prospects. This is a policy measure that will allow all future bid deposit forfeitures to be reinvested as received, resulting in an injection of hundreds of millions of dollars in support of growth in our offshore petroleum industry. “ The press release was accompanied by this statement from Siobhan Coady, Minister of Finance:

 “The value of the oil and gas industry to our province cannot be overstated, nor can it be replaced by any other sector in our economy. Upwards to 30 per cent of our GDP, 13 per cent of our labour compensation and 10 per cent of all employment is attributed to this industry. We will support this industry in any way that we can, because it supports our province.” 

The ends to which the government and industry are prepared to go are hinted at in a recent blog by WWF on October 1: Canada Provides Funding for Oil And Gas Development In Newfoundland and Labrador amidst Federal Scientists’ Critique of Flawed Environmental Assessment.

North Sea offshore oil workers rank job security as most important factor in a Just Transition

Three  environmental groups in the U.K. have released a new report on September 29: Offshore:  Oil and gas workers’ views on industry conditions and the energy transition . The report summarizes the views of 1,383 workers in the North Sea oil and gas industry (representing 4.5% of the workforce),  as provided in a survey conducted  in the summer of 2020 by  Friends of the Earth Scotland , Greenpeace UK , and the less well-known, London-based Platform.  In addition to the worker’s responses, the report summarizes the economic and working conditions of North Sea offshore oil and gas workers, includes case studies of the personal experiences of eight workers, and makes recommendations for government action. In the final call to action, the three environmental groups invite energy workers, unions, and others to participate in a planned consultation process across the UK, with workshops where energy workers can draft policy demands for a transition that works for them.

Almost 35% of respondents identified themselves as union members, – the two largest unions being  RMT-OILC (52.5%)  and Unite (36%).  In response to the report, RMT issued this press release, which states: “The skills and expertise of offshore oil and gas workers are key to a Just Transition.… To hear this strong, pro-worker, pro-trade union message from influential environmental groups is a significant moment in the debate which operators, contractors and Governments must listen to and act on. We applaud Platform, FoE Scotland and Greenpeace for taking this initiative and RMT will continue to work with them and like-minded NGOs in the fight for action to protect offshore jobs and skills from an unjust transition.”

Workers reveal an appetite for change, fueled by a desire for more job security

Selected survey results show:

  • 42.8% of oil and gas workers have been made redundant or furloughed since March 2020;
  •  Satisfaction with health and safety standards was most commonly rated 3/5;
  • 81.7% said they would consider moving to a job outside of the oil and gas industry- only 7% said they would not.
  • The most important consideration for those willing to transition outside the oil and gas industry was job security (58%). Second most important, at 21%, was pay level.
  • When asked what part of the energy sector they would be willing to retrain for and move to, 53% chose Offshore wind 53%;  51% Renewables ; 38%  Rig decommissioning ; 26% Carbon capture and storage . 20% would also consider moving outside the energy sector.

Based on these responses, the report makes recommendations for three key areas of action: 1. Consultation with workers:  “a representative section of the workforce should be involved in participatory policy-making, where workers are able to help determine policy, in addition to engagement with trade unions”; 2. Immediate government intervention and regulation to “improve job security and working conditions for workers in the oil and gas sector, to boost morale, improve quality of life, and mitigate the risk of workers leaving the energy sector altogether”; and  3. “Address barriers to entry and conditions within the renewables industry, including creating sufficient job opportunities.”

Platform is a U.K.-based environmental and social justice collective with campaigns focused on the global oil industry, fossil fuel finance and climate justice and energy democracy.  Readers may remember that Platform partnered with Friends of the Earth Scotland and  Oil Change International, to publish  Sea Change: Climate Emergency, Jobs and Managing the Phase-Out of UK Oil and Gas Extraction , released on May 2019 and highlighted by WCR here .

Alberta oil and gas voices calling for innovation while Newfoundland’s Hibernia workers face layoffs on June 12

Alberta’s Minister of  Energy, Sonya Savage outraged many Canadians with her comments on May 25  that the Covid-19 pandemic offers a “great time to build pipelines” because of the lack of protestors , and construction on the TransMountain pipeline began in Kamloops B.C.  on June 2.  Yet,  Max Fawcett, former editor of Oil and Gas magazine writes in a CBC Opinion piece, “Alberta could be fighting its last pipeline battle”   (May 27), stating:

“It will be difficult for a government that prides itself on its willingness to fight for one vision of the oil and gas industry to adapt to this rapidly changing landscape…..It will be tempting for it to continue railing against the federal government, environmental activists, and all of its other enemies, foreign and domestic. And if Biden wins the White House, and follows through on his pledge to cancel Keystone XL’s presidential permit, that temptation may prove overwhelming.

But the ground has shifted under the Government of Alberta’s feet, just as it has for all of us, due to COVID-19.

The sooner it comes to terms with that, and helps the rest of Alberta do the same, the better.”

Fawcett also criticized the Alberta government of Jason Kenney in  “Still waiting for Alberta to get the memo on climate-conscious investing”,   commenting  on the implications of the Norway’s Government Pension Fund decision to divest from Canadian oil and gas companies  because of their excessive climate impacts. Fawcett  calls for Alberta to tell a “more honest story”.

Notably, voices from Canada’s oil sands industry “Establishment” are also speaking out and signalling a shift in attitude.   On June 1, as part of the  Climate Knights Planning for a Green Recovery series, Mark Little, the CEO of Suncor Energy and Laura Kilcrease, CEO of the government agency Alberta Innovates  wrote an OpEd titled, “Canada’s oil sands are best positioned to lead the energy transformation”.  Hearkening back to the 1970’s in Canada and citing a 2019 BNP Parabas report on the declining future of oil , they acknowledge the inevitable coming transition with this:

“While Canadian oil and gas will remain a significant part of the global energy mix for some time, we have to take advantage of new opportunities that offer attractive growth prospects. The temporary economic lockdown triggered by the 2020 pandemic is giving us a glimpse into a not-too-distant future where the transformation of our energy system could disrupt demand on a similar scale. Disruption breeds opportunity and forward-looking companies and countries will need to step up and lead.

Now is the time to take a big step forward. As the history of the oil sands reveals, disruption and transformation are nothing new for Albertans and we’re optimistic that the Canadian energy industry is up to the challenge and best positioned to invest in and lead energy transformation.”

Industry response to the joint OpEd appears in “Suncor, Alberta Innovates op-ed a game-changer as oil and gas industry finally embraces energy transition” appeared  in EnergiMedia (June 2).  noting “ ….. it cannot be a coincidence that the same day the op-ed was published, Alberta finance minister Travis Toews told Postmedia that the Alberta government is preparing an economic recovery plan that will focus on diversifying “various industry sectors that we know have a great future in the province, certainly energy and agriculture as you would expect.”

Layoffs in June as Newfoundland’s Hibernia and offshore oil industry in crisis 

offshore rigOn June 3, CBC reported “Hibernia layoffs about to begin ‘with heavy hearts,’ drilling company says” , summarizing the announcement by Hibernia Management Development Corporation (HMDC) that it will suspend drilling operations starting June 12, as a cost-cutting measure in response to a collapse in oil prices.  The 18-month suspension of drilling  had already been announced in April , even before the negative impacts on demand by the COVID-19 pandemic.   The total number of layoffs may approach 600 members of  Unifor Local 2121 , which represents workers at  the Hibernia offshore installation and also at the affected Terra Nova FPSO vessel.  According to Article 32 of the current collective agreement  , six months’ written notice was required “In the event of platform closure, partial platform closure, technological change or restructuring, which will involve permanent reduction of regular rotation employees….”

These developments are the latest in a series of setbacks which constitute a crisis for the oil and gas industry in Newfoundland, summarized in  in “How a pandemic and production war thrashed one of N.L.’s 4 producing oil fields” (May 20) . The political lobbying for federal funds is described in “N.L. oil industry, former premier, rally behind MP Seamus O’Regan in quest for federal help”  (May 14)  and a Canadian Press article “N.L. warns of exodus of oil and gas industry without more federal help”  (May 26).

On June 4, the provincial government of Newfoundland announced  a “New Regional Assessment Process Protects the Environment and Shortens Timelines for Exploration Drilling Program Approval”  which  reverses a 2010 decision and places authority for exploration approval back with the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB), rather than the federal Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA). Calling the drilling of offshore exploration wells a “low impact activity”, the press release promises a faster approval process which “allows the province to become more globally competitive while maintaining a strong and effective environmental regulatory regime.”   This comes a week after the government-appointed  Wilderness and Ecological Reserves Advisory Council released their long-delayed report, A Home for Nature   which proposes  32 protected areas and a framework for ecological protection on land and offshore.

Scotland’s Just Transition Commission releases interim report and recommendations

offshore wind Beothuk Installation Newfoundland.jpgOn February 27 , the Scottish Just Transition Commission released its Interim Report , emphasizing the urgency for the Scottish Government to begin planning for transition immediately, and offering some positive examples of initiatives underway.  The Commission  calls for a government commitment to develop a Climate Emergency Skills Action Plan- specifically, an “assessment of workforces most likely to be affected by the transition (including those indirectly affected through supply chains), and the most immediate and pressing skills requirements needed to support the net-zero transition”.  The Commission’s interim recommendations also include:  a call to “Place equity at the heart of the Climate Change Plan update”; ensure that there is transition support for the Agriculture sector; establish a Citizens Assembly on climate change, operating independently of the Scottish Government; promote Scotland’s approach to just transition at COP 26 meetings in Glasgow in 2020; expand on the success of energy efficiency initiatives with funding support; begin planning for low-carbon infrastructure, noting that future government infrastructure investment should avoid locking in emissions and inequality; place the climate emergency at the heart of spending decisions; and improve modelling and research to help understand the transition.

Perhaps most controversial is the final recommendation:

“The oil and gas industry currently provides and supports a large number of high quality jobs meaning any transition for the sector and its supply chain in the decades ahead will need to be carefully managed. Strategies such as Roadmap 2035 from Oil and Gas UK have begun to set out the role industry believe they can play in a net-zero economy.    … To further support the deployment of CCUS and hydrogen, Government should consider supporting a programme of focussed research in collaboration with industry, with the aim of delivering a reduction in the costs of deploying these energy solutions in a way that secures a just transition for workers and stakeholders. “

The  Scottish Just Transition Commission  was launched in  September 2018, chaired by Professor  Jim Skea, and including two unionists amongst its membership: Richard Hardy, the National Secretary for Scotland and Ireland at labour union Prospect , and Dave Moxham, Deputy General Secretary of the Scottish Trade Union Congress .  The Commission has issued a Call for Evidence in 2020, with a final report and recommendations expected in 2021.  In the meantime, the Commission states that 2020 will be used to “consider a range of cross-cutting themes such as finance, skills and technology innovation”, and have commissioned a report on international just transition experiences.  The Interim Report also references several existing reports, including one commissioned by the Coalfields Regeneration Trust: The State of the Coalfields 2019: Economic and social conditions in the former coalfields of England, Scotland and Wales (July 2019), published by the  Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at She­eld Hallam University, in Sheffield.

Reaction is summed up by Friends of the Earth Scotland in its favourable statement, “Time to move beyond rhetoric on just transition, say Unions and environmentalists”. Reaction from the Scottish Trade Unions Congress is here ; Prospect’s reaction is here .  

Australian unions support offshore wind development as a means for Just Transition

Putting the ‘Justice’ in ‘Just Transition’: Tackling inequality in the new renewable economy  is a report released on November 7, co-written by the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, the Electrical Trades Union, the Gippsland Trades and Labour Council and the Victorian Trades Hall Council . This is the latest development  in a union campaign to promote Australia’s offshore wind industry  , focusing on the Star of the South project, Australia’s first proposed offshore wind farm.  The report calls Australia offshore wind campaignfor government policies to support the emerging industry and to make the Star of the South “ the best possible example of a just transition” by diversifying the job opportunities for workers and communities currently reliant on coal, oil and gas.

Specifically, the new report recommends:

  • the Commonwealth establish an energy transition authority to work with states and regions, develop a stand-alone Offshore Renewables Act, and create an agency responsible for facilitating the development of offshore renewable energy in Commonwealth waters;
  • the development of offshore and onshore renewable energy master plans that incorporate assessments of supply chains, procurement and infrastructure;
  • ensuring renewable energy financing, targets, contracts, licensing and approvals require the maximising of local jobs, including planning for direct redeployment of workers from fossil fuel industries;
  • the Victorian Government establish a just transition group to ensure a well-planned energy transition with the best possible social outcomes by formally consulting with relevant stakeholders including trade unions, employers and communities;
  • maximising the social benefit of the Star of the South project by requiring local design, manufacturing, and construction;
  • funding of appropriate training and retraining through local TAFEs, along with minimum apprentice ratios; and
  • maximising the number of jobs available by ensuring good rosters and reasonable hours of work.

The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) represents seafarers supplying the offshore oil and gas industry, as well as workers in Newcastle’s coal terminals, and port and tug workers in coal export ports in New South Wales and Queensland.  The MUA is  part of the Offshore Alliance ,which works to organise workers and improve conditions in the offshore oil and gas industry. The MUA position on renewable energy and a discussion of the Just Transition campaign are available here ; the MUA maintains a petition here .