Saskatchewan respondents rank comparable salary and preserving home equity as most important factors in a Just Transition

A provincial election campaign is underway in Saskatchewan – a province with a strong oil and gas production industry, and where 72% of electricity comes from coal and gas.  Although the conservative-leaning Saskatchewan Party led by Scott Moe is favoured to win the election on October 26th, a new report published by the Saskatchewan Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Analysis on October 14 reveals that there is strong concern about climate change, and surprising support for a shift to renewable energy in the province. Transition Time? Energy Attitudes in Southern Saskatchewan  was written by professors from University of Toronto, in collaboration with Emily Eaton,  Associate Professor at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan. It reviews the energy politics of the province briefly, and reports the responses of over 500 residents to a survey of five broad issues: climate change, transition, regional differences, energy production, and SaskPower.

While over 40% of respondents were worried about climate change, 50% disagreed that “it is necessary for Canada to phase out oil and gas production as our contribution to mitigating climate change”.  65% of respondents agreed that “Canada can continue to develop fossil fuels such as oil sands in Alberta and still meet its climate commitments” (only 18% disagreed).  Regarding carbon pricing, 47% strongly disagreed that Saskatchewan needs a price on carbon emissions. (Saskatchewan is one of the provinces currently fighting the federal carbon tax in the Supreme Court ).

Yet in a contradictory way, 60% of respondents supported a phase out of oil, gas and coal production in Saskatchewan – with 23% favouring a 10-year timetable for such a phase out. Even in oil-producing areas, half of the population agreed with phasing out fossil fuels, and 30% within 10 years or less. Respondents rated comparable salary and benefits, and maintaining equity in house/property values as the most important considerations in a Just Transition- more important than support and training to transition to new roles, and employment opportunities in your current community.  Saskatchewan was one of the provinces visited by the federal Task Force on Just Transition for Canadian Coal Power Workers and Communities, and the views of Saskatchewan citizens were reported in the Task Force’s 2019 report, What we Heard.   

The discussion which concludes the paper states that “it is clear that there is an urgent need for honest climate change leadership in the province. The fossil fuel industries have attempted to obstruct a transition to zero-carbon economies by suggesting that climate change can be tackled while continuing to produce fossil fuels, a belief widely held in Saskatchewan and propagated by both the government and the official opposition.”

Saskatchewan announces $10 million aid for Estevan and Cornach coal transition

A February 28 press release from the government of Saskatchewan announced funding to support the communities of Estevan  and Cornach     – the province’s principal coal-producing communities – as they transition after the federally- mandated phase-out of traditional coal-fired electricity generation by 2030.  Estevan is scheduled to receive $8 million and Cornach  $2 million in this provincial announcement – money that had already been pledged in the government’s Throne speech in October 2019 .

Climate Justice Saskatoon has studied and compiled research into  the coal transition for these two communities as a project called Future of Coal.  A useful timeline highlights key developments in the phase-out process from 2017 to 2019 and a report,   Bridging the gap: Building bridges between urban environmental groups and coal-producing communities  (2018), reports on “in-depth conversations with coal and service industry workers, town administrators, union representatives, and farmers”  in Cornach and Estevan.

The federal Task Force on a Fair and Just Transition for Canadian Coal Power Workers and Communities visited the two communities – briefly noted in their What we Heard report  and reported at length by the Estevan Mercury newspaper here.   The  Regina Leader Post reported in detail on the anxiety and frustration of workers in  “ ‘Energy city’ feeling powerless as coal phase-out haunts Estevan” (June 2019) . Workers are members of  United Mine Workers Local 7606 ,  and many are hoping that investment in carbon capture and storage (CCS)  might prolong their working lives.  A  video explains their view of  CSS  here on the Local 7606 website .

Coal transition funds announced for Alberta and Saskatchewan communities

On June 28, the federal government announced funding of $4,489,100 through the Canada Coal Transition Initiative.  Details of the funded projects – four in Alberta and five in Saskatchewan –  are listed in the Backgrounder . The Saskatchewan projects include establishing a solar installation training program in Estevan; development of business retention and expansion plans for Weyburn, Estevan, Moose Jaw and Coronach; and an economic and employment impact analysis with a regional strategic economic mitigation plan to support the Coronach & Region Coal Transition Initiatives. The Canada Coal Transition Initiative is a $35 million, five-year strategic fund to support skills development and economic diversification activities for workers and communities impacted by the government’s February 2018 decision to phase out traditional coal-fired electricity generation by 2030.

Since the June 28 announcements, brief reactions  have appeared: “Federal government gives $1.2M to Sask. groups to phase out coal” at CBC Saskatchewan; “Feds announce funding for coal energy transition in Saskatchewan, Alberta”which quotes a United Mineworkers spokesperson and the official province of Saskatchewan response;  “Leduc, Parkland counties among recipients of federal coal transition handout” in the Edmonton Journal, and  “Edmonton-area counties get help from Ottawa for coal transition” at CBC Edmonton.

The June 28 funding press release also  states:

In response to the Task Force on Just Transition for Canadian Coal Power Workers and Communities, the Government of Canada intends to:

Create worker transition centres (funded through Budget 2018);

Explore new ways to protect wages and pensions; and

Create a $150 million infrastructure fund, beginning 2020-21, for impacted communities, administered by Western Economic Diversification Canada and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.

Boundary Dam facility estevan

Boundary Dam facility in Estevan -photo by Don Healy / Regina Leader-Post) 

How the coal transition is impacting the communities across Canada is evident from the What we heard from Canadian coal power workers and communities report which accompanied the release of the Final Report of the Task Force on Just Transition for Canadian Coal Power Workers and Communities in January 2019.  Climate Justice Saskatoon has also published the results of its interviews with people in Estevan and Coronach in its Bridging the Gap project.   Articles have also appeared: “Estevan, Sask. preparing for coal phase-out putting hundreds of jobs at risk”  at Global News (May 2019)  is a profile of the community;  “Saskatchewan reaches agreement with Ottawa to cut power-generation emissions”(January 2019) outlines the agreement reached between the federal and provincial government, allowing  Boundary Dam Three near Estevan to continue beyond 2030, thanks to its nearly $1.5 billion Carbon Capture and Storage  retrofit.

Saskatchewan Court of Appeal rules for federal carbon tax program

With implications across the country, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal handed down a 3-2 decision  on May 3, ruling that the federal Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act (GGPPA) falls within federal government’s “National Concern” constitutional power. The Saskatchewan Association for Environmental Law has compiled all the legal submission documents here ; the EcoFiscal Commission provides a summary of the 155-page Decision here  .

Local coverage and reaction appeared in the Regina Leader Post (May 3) in “Court of Appeal: Saskatchewan government loses carbon tax challenge , and the Premier of Saskatchewan immediately declared that the province will appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, which it must do within 30 days.  As the Globe and Mail points out,  “Saskatchewan court rules federal carbon tax constitutional in first of several legal challenges” .  According to a CBC report, the Premier of New Brunswick  is still considering his options, but newly-elected Premier Jason Kenny of Alberta will join the Saskatchewan Supreme Court action. The Premier of Manitoba announced that his government will not abandon its own court challenge, which it launched on April 3. In Ontario, the Ford government is aggressively promoting its own battle over the carbon tax: four days of hearings ended on April 18th, and the Ontario Court of Appeal is expected to render its own decision on the constitutionality of the carbon tax in several months – possibly not until after the federal election in October 2019.

The political significance of the Saskatchewan decision:  Aaron Wherry at CBC  summarizes the general situation in  “The carbon tax survived Saskatchewan. That was the easy part”  (May 4).  The Globe and Mail states what is a widely accepted opinion in its editorial,  “Why conservatives secretly love the carbon tax”: “Round One goes to Ottawa. But the courtroom war against the federal carbon tax continues – waged by a fraternity of conservative provincial governments with more of an eye on immediate political returns than ultimate legal outcomes.”

Update:  Three law professors- Jason MacLean (University of Saskatchewan), Nathalie Chalifour ( University of Ottawa) and Sharon Mascher (University of Calgary)  published a reaction to the Saskatchewan Court’s decision on May 7 in The Conversation“Work on Climate not weaponizing the constitution”   takes issue with some of the finer legal points of the decision, but welcomes the Court’s recognition of the urgency and scale  of the climate emergency, and concludes: “We have to stop weaponizing the Constitution and start working together, across party lines at all levels of government, on urgent and ambitious climate action.”

Generational justice and climate change: we can all strike for our future

The constitutional challenge by the government of  Saskatchewan to the Canadian government’s Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act of 2018  is underway – hearings were held in February and a decision is pending, with a similar challenge by Ontario to be heard in April. The main purpose of the court challenges is to nullify the federal government’s national carbon tax program , the signature issue of the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change.  But the case has also given youth activists an opportunity to address the intergenerational justice of Canada’s climate change policies, as described in “Canada obliged to protect future generations from climate change, test case on carbon tax hears”   (Feb. 20)  in The Narwhal.

The preamble of the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act of 2018  states: “…Parliament recognizes it is the responsibility of the present generation to minimize impacts of climate change on future generations.”   This gave the Intergenerational Climate Coalition, led by  Generation Squeeze ,  a platform, as recognized intervenors, to argue that: “Failure to price pollution discriminates against younger Canadians, because it puts in jeopardy our reasonable aspiration to thrive in 2030 and beyond” and “the health threats to children and future generations are vastly disproportionate to their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions”. A press release in December 2018 describes the coalition and summarizes their arguments – mostly based on health consequences of climate change.

This issue of intergenerational  justice was also addressed by Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood in “The all too ugly truth: Climate change is generational genocide” , published  in Behind the Numbers in February.  Echoing the strong and direct tone we have come to expect from Greta Thunberg,  Mertins-Kirkwood states: “For the generations poised to inherit our warming world, the complacency and greed of their predecessors is no longer being tolerated. From Autumn Peltier’s presentation to the United Nations to the climate strikes organized by school children across Europe to the Quebec youth suing the government for failing to protect the environment, young people are refusing to sit by while this existential crisis deepens.”  He continues: “The perpetrators of the climate change genocide include the fossil fuel industry and climate-denying politicians, of course, but also the silent majority of fossil fuel consumers who actively ignore the mounting scientific evidence or otherwise take no responsibility for the path we are on. It is this generation’s campaign of destruction that is being inflicted upon all other and future generations.”

Youth are asking for help:  The main point of Mertins-Kirkwood’s article is to urge us all to act:  First, by recognizing and acknowledging how we have contributed to the problem; Second, by making climate change “a central concern for everyone in your life” ; and third, by supporting  those fighting for a better future, through donations, but also by amplifying youth voices “online and beyond”.  Greta Thunberg has also stated:  “If you think that we should be in school instead, then we suggest that you take our place in the streets, striking from your work. Or, better yet, join us, so we can speed up the process.”

How to respond? “Intergenerational” organizations exist to support the actions of youth activists:  for example, in Canada, Canadian Parents for Climate Action, and  For our Grandchildren Canada ; in Australia, Australian Parents for Climate Action and  1 Million Women .   Fridays for Future Canada   is coordinating the school strikes, but there are many more  youth-led activist groups, many of whom are asking for support and donations.   Some Canadian examples:  Canadian Youth Climate Coalition ; ENvironment JEUnesse  (Quebec group for under-35’s suing the government) ; PowerShift Young and Rising  ; Youth Climate Lab ; The 3% Project .

Youth in at least 22 communities in Canada are participating in the Global Fridays for the Future climate Strike on March 15.  As George Monbiot wrote in Resilience,  “Young climate strikes can win their fight. We must all help”.

fridays for future strikes

An excellent example:  At their most recent climate strike, elementary school students in Sudbury were presented with a letter  of support from the faculty members of Laurentian University.