With oil’s future uncertain, workers want to know if Trudeau has a plan for them

‘Instead of waiting for politicians in Edmonton or Ottawa to magically come up with solutions, we need to start pushing for them ourselves’
Photo: Energy Future Fellows tour Cenovus oil sands facility in Christina Lake, Alberta in 2017 (Public Policy Forum)
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Bruce Wilson understands the anxiety many workers face when thinking about exiting the oil industry.

Before a recent move to the hydrogen business, he spent over 30 years working as an engineer in the high-carbon industry, including a long stint at Shell. This first career saw him travelling to different countries, which he recalled as a “wonderful period” that allowed him to experience a variety of cultures. But it also raised questions for him.

“I fell in love with the world and all the people with their different lives,” he said.

“And I started thinking a long time ago about my impact on the world and living that kind of dichotomy between somebody that’s working in the oil and gas business and knowing that there’s an element of pollution and impact to the planet.”

Wilson said he tried to lower his own carbon footprint: using less, recycling more, becoming vegetarian. And by the mid-2000s, he also wanted to move to Shell’s renewable energy side and make changes from within.

While he now wishes he had been able to make his exit sooner, striking out alone on a renewable energy venture was still a risky bet then. In the 2000s, the interest in renewable energy was low compared to the uptake it received in the following decade. Since 2010, its cost has also fallen rapidly, making renewable energy much more competitive.

“The oil and gas industry will never be the engine for job creation that it was”

But while major oil companies like Shell have significantly expanded their investment in renewable energy, it still makes up only a small portion of their activity.

Wilson finally left Shell in 2018. He now runs a company focusing on hydrogen energy and serves as a board member with Iron & Earth, an organization that helps oil workers transition into renewable energy jobs.

Now is the time, he said. “We can actually say we have the technology to solve this and we just need to apply them en masse — we couldn’t say that 15 years ago.”

Still, he acknowledged that saying the shift is now more feasible for oil workers isn’t enough. Instead, Wilson shares labour organizations’ intensifying call for a just transition, while working to broaden the understanding of what this shift to a low-carbon economy should look like for workers.

The need for quality jobs

The cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline has renewed the call for a just transition for oil workers in Canada.

But this is not the only factor — renewable energy is increasingly competitive, demand for oil is declining and the oil industry is shifting toward becoming more capital intensive and less reliant on labour.

Labour leaders told Ricochet they understand this assessment well, pointing out that they have been advocating to governments for years about the need for a just transition.

“The oil and gas industry will never be the engine for job creation that it was,” said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour. “We may not like it, but that’s the reality.”

While McGowan observed “a move from denial to reluctant acceptance” over the past three years, he also acknowledged there’s still a lot of anger and fear among oil workers about the change.

Mark Rowlinson, assistant to the Canadian national director of the United Steelworkers, said he sees a similar sense of anxiety and frustration among the union’s members whose jobs are connected to the industry.

Rowlinson attributed the sentiments partly to the fact that 75 per cent of Canadian jobs are currently in the service sector, which don’t often offer the high-paying and unionized work that many see in the oil industry.

Older workers may also find it more difficult to retrain for a different career. And beyond the individual workers, there are also concerns about communities that rely on the industry.

Jobs in the service industry “are often not jobs that you can support a family on, buy a small home or have a dignified retirement,” he said. “This contributes to the fear and anxiety.”

Not the first transition

The idea of just transition is not new. By the 1990s, unions in North America were using the term as they looked for ways to support workers whose jobs were impacted by environmental regulations.

In Canada, employees in the oil industry would not be the first workers to see such a transition. In 2015, Alberta announced that it will phase out coal-fired electricity by 2029. The federal government followed in 2016 with a similar proposal to phase out coal-fired electricity across Canada by 2030.

In both cases, governments convened an advisory panel to consult affected coal workers and communities. The panels eventually outlined similar recommendations such as education support for young workers, income support, relocation grants, bridges to retirement for older workers and investment for affected communities. To finance these programs, Alberta announced a $40-million transition fund. Meanwhile, the federal government budgeted $185 million, with $35 million going to skill development and $150 million going to infrastructure projects in affected communities.

McGowan, who was part of both panels, said the labour movement has learned a lot from these processes.

“Green jobs are jobs powered by green energy. … There’s a whole ecosystem there.”

But he acknowledged that the transition for oil workers might not be as simple as copying what worked for coal workers due to the problem of scale. The coal transition directly affects fewer than 4,000 workers in coal-fired generating stations and thermal coal mines, which is around 40 times lower than the number employed in oil and gas.

“Because we’re talking about a much larger workforce, the government would have to put an awful lot more money on the table to make sure that these workers and their families aren’t left on the side of the road,” McGowan said. His federation has advocated for the creation of a federal transfer in “the order of tens of billions of dollars.”

The recommendation that doesn’t change with scale, however, is the need to have a clear and centralized plan for a just transition.

“The central takeaway has got to be that what coal workers and by extension fossil fuel workers in the future need is a plan,” said Rowlinson, who was also a member of the federal task force.

“But there needs to be a government commitment to a plan, preferably through legislation, preferably by an entire ministry that is devoted to supporting workers through this transition period.”

‘They can’t all be solar installers’

At the same time, Wilson pointed out that an oil industry transition demands not just job transfers for individuals but a larger change in the economy. For him and Iron & Earth, this means expanding the understanding of what a green job is and creating mentorship to help workers explore different pathways, especially since many of their skills are transferable.

“What are these workers going to? What are the jobs? They can’t all be solar installers or wind turbine technicians or project managers,” Wilson said, noting that this realization helped guide him toward exploring the hydrogen business.

“Green jobs are jobs powered by green energy. … There’s a whole ecosystem there. You create a whole economy around growing things, around transport, around manufacturing.”

On the other side of the coin, experts like Dr. Laurie Adkin — a political scientist at the University of Alberta — said a just transition also means patching the gaps in Canada's social safety net, especially for women, racialized and migrant workers.

Labour leaders agree. Rowlinson, in particular, pointed to this issue as a reason that oil workers are experiencing anxiety about their industry’s transition.

“Part of the problem is that for several decades now, our social safety net has atrophied terribly,” he said.

“The pandemic has changed some of this — but a lot of workers have no experience and more importantly no confidence that governments will actually be there to support them through whatever they may be facing in their economic future. That actually applies to all workers, not just fossil fuel.”

Federal government has yet to act

Today, oil workers are still waiting for a plan.

In 2019, the federal Liberals promised a Just Transition Act to help ensure energy workers and communities at large can succeed in a low-carbon economy. But the government has yet to introduce an Act, though it has invested in skills training and recently unveiled major funding for a hydrogen strategy, building retrofits and electric grid modernization.

“Around the world, the energy industry is transforming, and we will ensure a just transition for our workers,” Ian Cameron, press secretary for the Office of the Minister of Natural Resource, said in a statement to Ricochet.

He did not provide an answer regarding what the timeline for achieving this pledge would look like. McGowan said he is “disappointed” that the promised legislation has not been introduced, but he is willing to be patient with Ottawa due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, he expressed optimism about this lag as additional time to work with workers, communities and businesses in order to come up with their own solutions.

“Instead of waiting for politicians in Edmonton or Ottawa to magically come up with solutions, we need to start pushing for them ourselves,” McGowan said. “So in a weird sort of way, the delay might present us with an opportunity to have more say on what the eventual legislation actually looks like.”

“The way that you make change is by showing workers a future that’s compelling and exciting, that [makes] them say, ‘I can follow that,’” Wilson added.

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