For Alberta oil workers facing a future of industry volatility- policy options include Just Transition, green tax reform

In Search of Prosperity: The role of oil in the future of Alberta and Canada  was released on May 26, that cataclysmic day of bad news for the oil and gas industry when the Dutch courts ordered Royal Dutch Shell to reduce its emissions immediately, and shareholders at Exxon and Chevron defied management to press for climate-friendly policies. The future of the oil and gas industry is also grim in Canada, according to In Search of Prosperity, published by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). Using economic models, it concludes that “the volatility of the industry poses a much greater threat than low prices to the Alberta economy – more than five times worse than the effect of just low prices.” And further: “….. unless there are innovations in the uses of oil for non-combustion, also known as “bitumen beyond combustion,” the oil sector will contribute less and less to Alberta’s prosperity.” According to the modelling, employment in the oil sector will potentially decrease byan average 24,300 full-time jobs per year toward 2050 ( accompanied by a potential 43% drop in royalties to the Alberta government). 

How to cope with those upcoming job losses? Another report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), also released on May 26, suggests the EU Just Transition Mechanism as one of its model strategies for the future. 10 Ways to Win the Global Race to Net-Zero: Global insights to inform Canadian climate competitiveness offers an overview of the global policy literature and describes successful case studies, including the innovation of green steel in Sweden; hydrogen policy in Germany; collaboration in the form of the European Battery Alliance and the European Transition Commission; the Biden “all of government” approach to governance in the U.S.; New Zealand’s consultation with and inclusion of the indigenous Maori; and the EU’s Just Transition Mechanism as part of the European Green New Deal. The report’s conclusion offers five strategies, including that the Canadian government must take action as a “top priority” on its promised Just Transition Act.

The discussion of Just Transition in 10 Ways to Win provides a brief, clear summary of the complexity of the EU Just Transition Mechanism, and states that the EU approach is consistent with the recent report,  Employment Transitions and the Phase-Out of Fossil Fuels by Jim Stanford, published by the Centre for Future Work in January 2021. Stanford argues that a gradual transition from fossil fuels is possible without involuntary layoffs, given a “clear timetable for phase-out, combined with generous supports for retirement, redeployment, and regional diversification”.

The IISD also recently published Achieving a Fossil Free Recovery (May 17), an international policy discussion with a focus on ending subsidies and preferential tax treatments for the fossil fuel industry. The report concludes with a brief section on Just Transition as the predominant framework for the transition to a clean energy economy, and calls for a social dialogue approach. As in previous IISD reports (for example, Fossil Fuel Subsidy Reform and the Just Transition in 2017), the authors argue that dollars spent to support and subsidize the fossil fuel industry could be better spent in encouraging clean energy industries.  This argument also relates to an April 2021 IISD report, Nordic Environmental Fiscal Reform, which offers case studies of the success of environmental taxes – for example, in the use of tax revenue to support the Danish wind energy industry which now employs 33,000 workers.

Principles and best practices for a Just Transition for Canada’s fossil fuel workers

Economist Jim Stanford has written a timely new report which should be required reading for politicians setting their hair on fire about Joe Biden’s stated intention to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline project on Day one of his presidency.  Employment Transitions and the Phase-Out of Fossil Fuels, released on January 18, argues that “the actual number of fossil fuel jobs and the number of communities reliant on the industry is small enough that a just and equitable transition plan for workers is very feasible” – and the key is timing.

Stanford’s report begins by setting out the statistics regarding fossil fuel employment in Canada: “under 1% of total payroll employment in Canada (or about 160,000 jobs) is located in seven industrial sectors which together comprise most of the composite fossil fuel industry. “ Using 2016 Census data, the report discusses the distribution of fossil fuel jobs by province and community, showing that Alberta  accounts for 75% of fossil-related jobs in 2016, but even there, only it accounts for  7% of all provincial employment. 18 fossil fuel-dependent communities are named, where fossil fuel jobs account for 9.5% of employment – including two well-known examples, Wood Buffalo/Fort McMurray in Alberta and Estevan in Saskatchewan.  The report continues to compare employment in the fossil fuel industry and in the health care sector, Canada’s largest employer. The aim is not to diminish the importance of fossil fuel employment, but to illustrate that employment possibilities exist in other sectors, even within fossil fuel-reliant communities.

Stanford looks ahead and states: “given weakening global demand for fossil fuels, depressed prices, continued infrastructure constraints, and aggressive cost-cutting by fossil fuel employers (shedding labour to protect profits despite lower energy prices), fossil fuel industries will see continued downsizing of their employment footprint.”   He summarizes the employment transitions of other sectors in Canada’s history, notably fisheries, auto manufacturing, manufacturing – as well as other sectors currently transitioning, including retail, transportation, and newspapers and media, and documents the overall dynamics which are always churning labour markets. All these arguments build to the report’s final section, which is to outline the principles and best practices for planning effective employment and community transitions for the inevitable decline of fossil fuels. 

Principles and Best Practices for Transition

Repeating a point he made in a similar report about Australia, Stanford speaks out for younger workers: “Fossil fuels will disappear as a major source of energy within the foreseeable future. Given that reality, it is unhelpful, and indeed cruel, to encourage more workers – including some just entering the workforce – to try to build their livelihoods in an industry that will soon disappear.”

And further

 “ …in an effective, orderly labour market transition….. Most fossil fuel workers will not end up producing solar panels or windmills; in fact, if we manage this transition effectively, most fossil fuel workers will not need to find new jobs at all. As with the climate itself, the sooner we start this transition, the lower its ultimate costs will be, and the greater its net benefits. Delaying these necessary actions only makes matters worse – including for fossil fuel workers. In this context, statements of supposed “solidarity” with fossil fuel workers expressed by some business leaders and political representatives are entirely dubious. Pretending that fossil fuel industries can carry on as “normal” for decades to come (or worse could actually be expanded) is a cruel hoax.”

Employment Transitions and the Phase-Out of Fossil Fuels  was published by the Centre for Future Work, which is a project of the Australia Institute – which also operates in Canada in collaboration with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, housed in the CCPA’s Vancouver office.   The report was commissioned by Environmental Defence Canada, which released its own graphically-enhanced summary version, Steady Path: How a transition to a fossil-free Canada is in reach for workers and their communities . 

G7 MEETINGS HISTORIC FOR UNANIMOUS AGREEMENT TO PHASE OUT FOSSIL FUELS

Globe-Net answers the question: “Just what did the G-7 Leaders Decide about Climate Change, Energy, and the Environment?” in a thorough summary of the communiques from the G7 meetings in Germany in June 2015. All the official documents from the meetings are here.  In “ G7 Fossil Fuel Pledge is a Diplomatic Coup for Germany’s ‘Climate Chancellor’ ”(June 8), The Guardian calls the leaders of Japan and Canada, “ climate recalcitrants” and applauds the fact that even Canada has agreed to the G7 plan to phase out fossil fuels by the end of the century. The press release from Prime Minister Harper’s office on June 8 however, doesn’t mention that pledge amongst the achievements of the G7. “Canada commits to G7 plan to end use of fossil fuels” in the Globe and Mail (June 8) hints at Mr. Harper’s lack of enthusiasm.