International conference highlights union initiatives for public ownership and democratic control of energy

TUED 2019 conferenceAn international conference, “The Green New Deal, Net-Zero Carbon, and the Crucial Role of Public Ownership“, brought together more than 150 trade unionists, activists and policy allies in New York City on September 28, 2019. In November, a 50-page summary of the conference was released by Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED), with summaries of presentations (including many links to related documents), as well as links to video of some sessions.

TUED Coordinator Sean Sweeney described the context of the conference:  “The world is completely off-track to avoid catastrophic climate change, and we can’t wait any longer. Fortunately, unions and their allies around the world increasingly recognize that only comprehensive public ownership and democratic control of energy gives us a chance to achieve the scale of change needed in the time available.” Speakers from the U.K., South Africa, South Korea, Zimbabwe, the U.S., among others, addressed the key themes through their own experiences, including:  “Privatization of State-Owned Electricity Utilities Has Failed, But Alternatives Exist”; “Defending and Reclaiming Public Energy Requires Building Union Power”; “The Transition Must Take into Account the Development Needs of the Global South”. As for next steps, Peter Knowlton, outgoing President of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), proposed a specific mobilization for 2020: “to bring millions of workers into the streets for Earth Day on April 22, 2020. But we need to have a continuous series of actions, … A week of activity between the “bookends” of Earth Day and May Day could be a wonderful opportunity to bring the labor and environmental movements together in a way we haven’t seen before.”

The conference was organized by Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED), with support from Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (New York Office) and the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Labor and Urban Studies, in partnership with unions – from Canada, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE). Local 32BJ SEIU  hosted a two-day retreat in advance of the full gathering.

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” .

Scrap the Infrastructure Bank, says CUPE

GO transit stationThe federal government first announced its plans for an Infrastructure Bank in the Fall 2016 Economic Statement, and fleshed out an implementation schedule and funding in the Budget released in March 2017   .  The  Infrastructure Bank website here  describes: “If approved by Parliament, the Bank would invest $35 billion from the federal government into transformative infrastructure projects.  $15 billion would be sourced from the over $180 billion Investing in Canada infrastructure plan, including: $5 billion for public transit systems; $5 billion for trade and transportation corridors; and, $5 billion for green infrastructure projects, including those that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, deliver clean air and safe water systems, and promote renewable power.”  It will function as an arms-length Crown corporation “and would work with provincial, territorial, municipal, Indigenous, and private sector investment partners to attract pension funds and other institutional investors to new revenue-generating infrastructure projects that are in the public interest.”  A May 13 press release from the responsible Minister of Infrastructure and Communities announces that the selection process for senior management positions has begun, and the goal is to launch the Bank in 2017. The enabling legislation is buried deep in the enormous Bill C-44, the Budget Implementation Act  (as Division 18 of Part 4) . Bill C-44 is now in 2nd reading in the House of Commons, and the Finance Committee began a clause-by-clause review of the legislation in the week of May 29.

There is no shortage of criticism and critics of the Infrastructure Bank, from across the political spectrum.  In “Where Were They Going Without Ever Knowing the Way? Assessing the Risks and Opportunities of the Canada Infrastructure Bank”,  (May 4) economists at the University of Ottawa Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy argue that the case for the infrastructure bank is weak since Canada doesn’t yet have a comprehensive inventory of the status of existing infrastructure. (The May 18 report  submitted to Canada’s Climate Change Adaptation platform may answer some of those objections) .

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) is leading the union charge of criticism , mostly on the grounds that the infrastructure bank encourages and enables privatization of public projects. Even before the March budget was delivered, CUPE Economist Toby Sanger wrote  Creating a Canadian infrastructure bank in the public interest  , published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.  After the budget was delivered,  CUPE’s initial response  was published in April .  In May, CUPE compiled expert criticisms here   , and on May 29, the union issued the call to  “Scrap bank of privatization, build infrastructure for Canadians” . CUPE also presented a detailed brief  to government committees in May, with ten points of criticism and recommendations for change so that public bridges, roads and waterways remain under public control.