Ottawa kickstarts 'transition' process for oil and gas workers

The federal government is launching a long-awaited process to come up with a plan to support oil and gas workers as economies around the world move away from fossil fuels.

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O'Regan promises workers 'will not be left behind'

A haul truck carrying a full load drives away from a mining shovel at the Albian Sands oilsands mine near Fort McMurray, Alta. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The federal government is launching a long-awaited process to come up with a plan to support oil and gas workers as economies around the world move away from fossil fuels.

"They will not be left behind," Natural Resources Minister Seamus O'Regan told a news conference today. "Workers will be at the centre of a clean energy future."

The minister launched a nearly three-month consultation process today. Workers, labour groups and industry stakeholders can submit their feedback on proposed federal legislation that would offer supports for workers leaving the industry, such as job training.

The recommendations that emerge from the consultation process are to "inform government decision-making and the creation of a Just Transition Advisory Body," O'Regan's department said in a media statement.

Two years after promising a "just transition" for oil and gas workers and on the verge of an anticipated fall federal election campaign, the Liberals are taking the first steps toward a transition plan for workers.

It's a "baby step," said economist Jim Stanford of the Centre for Policy Alternatives.

"Given that there is an election that is on the horizon, this is more about optics to make the government look like it's doing something," he said.

Stanford estimates that over the next 25 years, many jobs in the oilpatch will disappear and the government will need to spend at least $1 billion a year to support the retraining and relocation of workers.

Mike Vickers, an operations supervisor in the oilsands near Fort McMurray, said he doesn't believe the oil and gas industry is going away any time soon. He said Canadian producers are remaining competitive, lowering their emissions and working to achieve net-zero.

But Vickers, who has worked in the industry for almost a decade, said he sees the angst among colleagues who worry about the sector's future.

"There's a lot of uncertainty. It's a lot tougher than it used to be," he said.

Fort McMurray-based oil and gas advocate Robbie Picard said he worries that planning for the phase-out of industry jobs amounts to betting against the sector's future. Governments instead should be doing everything they can to support all energy players, he said, whether they produce power from wind turbines or oil wells.

"I think we need to end this so-called war against fossil fuels," Picard said.

O'Regan said he's not declaring that the age of oil is over.

"I am in no way indicating that," O'Regan said. "What I am indicating is we have to lower emissions."

In a media statement, Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage called the launch of the just transition engagement process "extremely harmful" to the sector's workers and Canada's economy.

"We have a regulatory framework that balances both the environment and the economy, and we have invested billions of dollars in technologies that reduce — and in some cases eliminate — emissions, such as carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS)," she said.

"None of this is possible without the hard work of our skilled oil and gas workers. Alberta will continue to tirelessly advocate on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of workers whose livelihoods depend on the industry. We expect the federal government to stand up for Alberta's world-leading oil and gas sector instead of trying to dismantle it."


David Thurton

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Correspondent

David Thurton is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He covers daily politics in the nation’s capital and specializes in environment and energy policy. Born in Canada but raised in Trinidad and Tobago, he’s moved around more times than he can count. He’s worked for CBC in several provinces and territories, including Alberta and the Northwest Territories.

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