Canada enacts Economic Stimulus Plan for COVID-19 amid calls for sustainable investment, not bail outs

With almost one million new employment insurance claims made so far during the COVID crisis and a grim new forecast by TD Economics just published, a special sitting of  Parliament on March 25 passed a economic stimulus package for Canada.  As described in  “Feds rejig benefits to get aid to workers affected by COVID-19” in the National Observer (Mar. 26), the new measures will combine and augment the two  previously announced benefit  programs into one, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit .   The core of the new benefit program will use General Revenues rather than the EI Fund, to provide “a $2,000-a-month payment for up to four months to workers whose income drops to zero because of the pandemic, including if they have been furloughed by their employers but technically still have jobs.” It is promised that the money will reach Canadians by mid-April, with an additional increase to the Child Care Benefit of $300/month/child beginning in May. The Ministry of Finance summary is here ; the fine print is in the Notice of Ways and Means Motion here .

In response to the government’s stimulus, David Macdonald has written  Unemployment may hit 70-year high, but new EI replacement will help”, which appears in Behind the Numbers from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (March 26). Macdonald identifies the  four industries at the highest risk of immediate job losses from the pandemic:  passenger airlines; arts, recreation, culture and sport; retail sector; and accommodation and food services (which alone employs 987,000 workers in normal times).  He then analyses how the benefits announced on March 25 will impact the approximately 2 million most vulnerable occupations within those industries.  The article also forecasts alarming unemployment scenarios across Canada, and specifically in  Canada’s cities, where service workers form a high percentage of the labour force. Some conclusions: unemployment in Calgary could rise from the already high 8.0% to a probable rate of 15.3%, excluding any further oil price shocks; Ottawa could rise from its February 2020 low 4.4% to 11.6% in the worst-case scenario; Toronto could see  an increase from 5.4% to 12.4% in the worst case; Montreal from 5.2% to 13.4%, and Vancouver 4.7% to 13.8%.

Calls for Sustainable investments, not bail outs

In reacting to the March 25 emergency stimulus measures, Julia Levin of Environmental Defence Canada raises the biggest elephant in the room: concern that money will be used to bail out the troubled oil and gas industry .  Environmental Defence warns :

“We applaud all of the federal parties for working together to take this positive step to pass legislation which will help those struggling” …. “But hidden inside this new law were changes that will make it easier for Canada’s export credit agency, Export Development Canada, to funnel billions more towards domestic oil and gas operations — without public scrutiny.”

Others who have spoken out against short-term bail outs: 

Civil society and labour unions: “No New Money For Oil and Gas Companies—Give It To Workers—Say Large Collection of Groups Representing More Than One Million Canadians” ,  an Open Letter to the federal government in advance of the March 25 announcement. It states: “Giving billions of dollars to failing oil and gas companies will not help workers and only prolongs our reliance on fossil fuels. Oil and gas companies are already heavily subsidized in Canada and the public cannot keep propping them up with tax breaks and direct support forever. Such measures benefit corporate bottom lines far more than they aid workers and communities facing public health and economic crises. “

265 Canadian Academics: As reproduced in the National Observer, another open letter to the Prime Minister from academics and advocacy groups  (with a list of the 265 signatories here )

A bailout for the oil and gas industry? Here’s why experts say it’s not a long-term solution” by Sharon Riley in The Narwhal , which notes that the  oil and gas industry has called for a postponement of increases to the federal carbon tax and  “a federal Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) modeled after the U.S. program developed in 2008 to purchase positions in distressed companies.” The experts who argue against it include Jeff Rubin (former chief economist with CIBC World Markets), Gord Laxer, (Professor Emeritus University of Alberta), Chris Severson-Baker (Pembina Institute), and Ian Hussey (Parkland Institute).  In “Bail out Workers, Not Fossil Fuels, Climate Advocates Tell Trudeau” in The Tyee (March 20),  Geoff Dembicki  discusses the same issues.

COVID-19 crisis is a tipping point. Will we invest in planetary health, or oil and gas?” (Mar. 24)  by Dr. Courtney Howard,  Board member of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

Coronavirus and the economy: We need green stimulus not fossil fuel bailouts” by Kyla Tienhaara, Canada Research Chair in Economy and Environment at Queen’s University, published in The Conversation (Mar. 24). She argues that “Stimulus measures should either provide substantial environmental benefits such as greenhouse gas emissions reductions or re-orientate the economy to low-carbon activities, such as care work and the arts….   bailouts to the fossil fuel industry and airlines would be monumentally counterproductive.”

Tim Gray of Environmental Defence offers some specific alternatives in “How Canada can build an environmentally sustainable future after the COVID-19 Crisis” (March 23).

These same arguments are playing out internationally – Naomi Klein has released a new video at The Intercept,  explaining  how the Trump administration and other governments across the globe are “exploiting” the coronavirus outbreak “to push for no-strings-attached corporate bailouts and regulatory rollbacks.” She urges working people worldwide to resist such efforts and demand real support from political leaders during the ongoing crisis.”  In the U.S., the Climate Justice Alliance is part of that resistance, as described in Demand A People’s Bailout that Protects Workers while Ensuring Safe and Sustainable Energy  .

 

Can the fight against COVID-19 help the climate change fight?

With the world reeling under the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, some are trying to make sense of our disrupted world, and find lessons and hope for the fight against climate change.

One thoughtful and useful article is  “Can COVID-19 create a turning point in the fight against climate change?”,  which appeared in Medium on March 13.  Acknowledging that the pandemic is distracting attention and resources from the climate fight, author Kaveh Madani  argues that “The COVID-19 crisis is teaching us some lessons and implementing some reforms that are essential for success in mitigating the climate crisis.” Specifically, economic and financial reforms; reduction of GHG emissions; the move to “virtual life”, including teleworking; reduction of aviation travel and consumerism; the importance of science; the interconnectedness of our global world, and conversely, the importance of individual action.

Another widely-cited article  appeared in Fast Company, “What would happen if the world reacted to climate change like it’s reacting to the coronavirus? . The article quotes May Boeve, executive director of 350.org, who finds hope in the fact that: “We’ve seen that governments can act, and people can change their behavior, in a very short amount of time… And that’s exactly what the climate movement has been asking governments and people to do for years in the face of a different kind of threat—the climate crisis.”  The downside? The response to the climate threat has not been as swift and strong, which she attributes to the perception that it is a “ somewhat distant problem, despite the growing number of climate-related disasters that happen every year”, and because “in the climate crisis, powerful companies have a lot to lose if the world acts decisively, and with the virus, though many people are losing money, there’s no similarly massive opposition to trying to address the problem.”

Two articles on March 15 in The Energy Mix explore how the Coronavirus has disrupted the oil and gas industry, and how that may help the climate fight.   “Coronavirus Triggers OPEC+ Breakup, Drives Deepest Oil Price Dive in 29 Years” (March 15)  summarizes the geopolitics and oil price collapse;  “Oil War and Covid-19 Create Risk, Opportunity for Clean Energy”  (March 15)  summarizes the opinions of several market analysts who argue that “It doesn’t make sense to reduce your investment in renewables if the oil price crashes …It’s more logical to reduce your investment in oil.”  Amongst possible benefits:  governments would reduce fossil fuel subsidies and redirect funding to health priorities, and  investment redirected to clean energy would strengthen that sector.

Finally, Avi Lewis of The Leap wrote a Globe and Mail Opinion piece, “In the midst of converging crises, the Green New Deal is the answer in which he argues: ” In the midst of all these terrifying and converging disasters, this is perhaps the greatest opportunity – to shatter the shackles of austerity thinking and see the potential for government to do big things, like actually lead a democratic and inclusive response to the climate emergency at the speed and scale that science and justice require.”

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 .  

Fewer jobs will be needed in Alberta’s oil sands according to Parkland report

parkland futureofalbertasoilsands_coverThe latest of several reports by the Parkland Institute and Corporate Mapping Project  was released on March 10:  The Future of Alberta’s Oil Sands Industry : More Production, Less Capital, Fewer Jobs .  Author Ian Hussey  argues that a managed decline of the industry is needed, and that it is now in its mature phase – with  53,119 jobs lost between 2014 through 2019.  With this maturity comes fewer construction projects, and technological change is driving down operational employment. Although most people are aware of the adoption of driverless trucks, Hussey also discusses  horizontal multi-well drilling pads; supervisory control and data acquisition, remote monitoring, and information technology and analytics; and replicated designs and modularization.   In sum,

“Despite the growth in production, fewer and fewer employees are needed. In 2019, overall productivity per employee in Canada’s oil and gas industry was 47% higher than in 2011, and productivity in the oil sands was 72% higher in 2019 than 2011. This indicates that the jobs that have been lost in recent years are likely not coming back. Production is at an all-time high and has increased 23% since 2014, while jobs have declined by 23% since 2014.”

The report also profiles the “ Big Five” oil and gas companies operating in Alberta:  Suncor Energy, Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL), Imperial Oil, Cenovus Energy, and Husky Energy – providing statistics on their production, reserves,  profits and shareholder returns, and capital spending.

Alberta’s government continues to prop up oil and gas industry with new Blueprint for Jobs, penalties for protesters

As Teck Mines and other  private sector investors rush away from oil and gas investment in Alberta and the price of oil collapses, the Alberta Legislature resumed on February 24, with a  Budget  and a new economic plan: A Blueprint for Jobs: Getting Alberta Back to Work . The Blueprint is built on five pillars: “Supporting businesses; Freeing job creators from senseless red tape; Building infrastructure; Developing skills; Selling Alberta to the world.”  Announced in a March 2 press release as the first step  in the Blueprint:  a $100 million loan to the Orphan Well Association,  promising to generate up to 500 direct and indirect jobs by financing reclamation of abandoned mining sites. The press release also promises  a future “suite” of announcements “covering the entire lifecycle of wells from start to finish”.   As The Narwhal  reports in  “Alberta loans industry-funded association $100 million to ‘increase the pace’ oftes orphan well cleanup (March 2),  this latest loan follows a 2017 loan of $235 million , as the industry-levies which fund the Orphan Wells Association fail to keep pace with the environmental mess left behind by bankrupt mining companies.

The Alberta Federation of Labour  released a statement in response to the Alberta Budget ,  “Kenney’s Budget breaks promises, delivers opposite of what Albertans voted for last year” . The AFL charges that the budget will result in more than 1,400 job cuts, especially in education (244 jobs lost), agriculture (277 jobs lost), and community and social services (136 jobs lost). Further, “Today’s budget increases the deficit by $1 billion because of this government’s short-sighted overreliance on resource revenues, while cutting billions in revenue from corporations.” A similar sentiment appeared from an opposite corner:  an Opinion piece in the mainstream Toronto Globe and Mail states: “The cost of Mr. Kenney’s inaction on economic diversification will be high. Alberta has the advantage of being home to many skilled clean-tech and renewable-energy workers already, but the speed at which the world is innovating in that area means that a lagging Alberta will result in the emigration of some of our best and brightest entrepreneurs.”

Updated:  

The Alberta Federation of Labour released another statement on March 16 , condemning the Budget proposal as an “  ideological budget that does not fit the times”.  Further, it is  “no longer worth the paper it’s written on. The revenue side of the budget is in tatters because oil is now trading nearly $30 per barrel less than projected” , and because of the Covid-19 crisis, the planned cuts to health care “will hurt, not help our province.”   The AFL is demanding that the Budget be scrapped, but the CBC reported on March 16, “Alberta government plans to accelerate budget process, add $500M to health spending” , reporting that the government dramatically curtailed study and debate , and on March 17, CBC reported “Alberta legislature approves $57-billion budget in race against COVID-19 spread”.

For those concerned about the erosion of the democratic process under the threat of the pandemic, this is a worrying sign.

And not the first worrisome sign in Alberta:  the first order of business in the new Session was  Bill 1, The Critical Infrastructure Defence Act , introduced by Premier Kenney. As described in a National Observer article here  , the Bill  proposes to discourage citizen protest by making it easier for police to intervene in blockades, and proposes individual fines for protesters of up to $10,000 for a first offence, and up to $25,000 for each subsequent day a blockade or protest remained in place. The Alberta Federation of Labour released a statement on March 6 calling on the government to withdraw the Bill immediately, stating that the justification (ie protection of rail lines) is misleading, and “The legislation is clearly designed to stop or discourage all collective action that goes against the UCP agenda, including potential labour or worker action.”