Calgary

Liberals pledge $2B to help 'transition' oil workers; Alberta communities lukewarm

The federal Liberals have pledged $2 billion to help workers in oil-producing provinces transition to a greener economy, but the proposal is getting a lukewarm reception in communities that might be beneficiaries of the funding.

Some say it will be difficult to match the incomes and job numbers of oil and gas

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau reveals his party's election platform during the Canadian federal election in Toronto on Wednesday, September 1, 2021, including money for oil and gas workers. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

The federal Liberals have pledged $2 billion to help workers in oil-producing provinces transition to a greener economy, but the proposal is getting a lukewarm reception in communities that might be beneficiaries of the funding.

In Cold Lake, Alta. — where more than 2,000 of the city's 15,000 residents are employed at nearby oilsands operations — Mayor Craig Copeland said he doesn't believe most people working in the sector want to switch jobs.

Cold Lake's economy has suffered over the last seven years due to low oil prices, consolidation, and layoffs in the energy sector. Copeland said local real estate prices have fallen almost 40 per cent since 2012.

However, things are looking brighter this year, thanks to higher commodity prices driving increased oilsands production. Copeland said he's optimistic about the future of his community, a place where 20-somethings can earn six figures, buy homes and raise families.

"We already have a huge industry that generates enormous wealth for people," Copeland said, calling the Liberals' transition proposal a "made-in-Ottawa" solution not grounded in reality.

"Until you find a way to replace that, people won't even look at retraining."

Part of push to net-zero

The Liberal proposal for a $2-billion "Future Funds" program for Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador is part of a larger promise to ensure workers aren't left behind as Canada pursues its climate change commitments. The party's platform contains a promise to create a "Clean Jobs Training Centre" to help oilpatch workers upgrade or gain new skills.

The Liberals have pledged to require the oil and gas industry to reduce its emissions from current levels at the pace and scale needed to achieve net-zero by 2050, and will set five-year targets toward that goal beginning in 2025.

While there are different ways to accomplish that goal, said Isabelle Turcotte — director of federal policy for clean energy think-tank the Pembina Institute — the outcome will undoubtedly have an impact on oil and gas employees.

"It's been hard in Canada to talk about reductions in oil and gas, because of workers," Turcotte said. "But regardless of the pathway (to net-zero) we choose ... we will see a decrease in production and consumption of oil and gas, all the way to 2050."

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said climate change is a reality his province needs to face up to.

"We've had a great ride with oil and gas, but the sector will never be the same engine for economic growth that it was," McGowan said. "Pretending that we can ignore the direction that the world is heading and go back to the past is not in the best interest of Alberta workers, including people working in the oil and gas sector."

McGowan said the AFL has been lobbying for federal support in the range of $10 to $20 billion per year to help oil-producing provinces and their workers diversify. He said the labour group would like to see a new federal transfer program that could fund green infrastructure projects, training and apprenticeships in affected provinces.

Oil and gas will remain

Thousands of Albertans have already been affected by downsizing, automation, and the ongoing evolution of Canada's energy sector, said Adam Legge, president of the Business Council of Alberta. The percentage of the province's labour force that has been unemployed for more than one year is 2.4 per cent, the highest rate of long-term unemployment in the country (the national average is 1.4 per cent).

Legge said his organization is supportive of federal funding for clean energy, diversification and anything else that will help to keep Alberta competitive in a changing world. But he said Canada's oil and gas sector is still critical to the national economy, and will remain so for a long time.

"We support this kind of (transition fund) initiative because there are many people who aren't going to find the same kind of job they once had," Legge said. "But what we don't want it to be is code for `wind down of the sector.' We don't support that approach at all."

Ted Clugston — mayor of Medicine Hat, Alta. — said his city was "devastated" when natural gas prices collapsed in 2008. He said Medicine Hat has been pursuing diversification ever since, and has had significant success attracting solar and wind power projects to the area.

However, Clugston said the employment created by those projects doesn't come close to the thousands of local jobs created by the oil and gas sector.

"There's lots of jobs during construction, but once (wind and solar farms) are built, there's not that many jobs," he said. "I don't know where all these green jobs are going to come from."

The federal Conservative Party platform makes no mention of a transition fund for oil and gas workers, instead criticizing Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau for "wanting to phase out the sector and its jobs." It says a Conservative government would support energy sector workers.

The NDP platform pledges to "work together" with labour, employers and the provinces to find solutions that could include expanded EI benefits, re-training and job placement services.

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