Union representing energy workers backs stronger emissions cuts — as long as there's a transition plan

A union representing oil and gas workers says they don't object to Canada cutting emissions — in fact, they think the country could aim for more ambitious targets. But only if there's a plan for a "just transition" that won't leave workers behind.

Advocates worried Canada is heading towards an unplanned transition for oil and gas workers

Without a transition plan, advocates say oil and gas workers fill face involuntary layoffs and a lack of options for retraining. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

A union representing oil and gas workers says they don't object to Canada's latest emissions targets — in fact, they think the country could aim for even more ambitious ones. But only if there's a plan for a "just transition" that won't leave workers behind.

Unifor was among the many groups with eyes on Ottawa as Canada announced new climate targets at U.S. President Joe Biden's climate summit last week. The new targets that emerged would see Canada reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 to 45 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

That's a significant step beyond what was announced in the federal budget (36 per cent) and Canada's official climate plan, the Pan-Canadian Framework (30 per cent). It's an ambitious target, but lower than what other countries announced at the summit, including the U.S. itself, which has pledged to at least halve its emissions by 2030. 

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Canada has also set a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

They're ambitious goals that could have human consequences if Canada doesn't plan for them, said Unifor representative Joie Warnock.

"Our members in the energy sector have a lot to say about the path to decarbonization. The pathway to a lower carbon economy goes directly through their livelihoods, through their lives, through their communities," she said.

"We're very concerned that the government hasn't done the work to plan for a just transition."

Cuts inevitable in oil and gas

Under its current plan, Canada achieves its most significant emissions cuts in sectors such as electricity generation, heavy industry and buildings. While emissions from the oil and gas sector are also projected to be lower by 2030, Canada cannot match the more ambitious targets other countries are proposing without deeper cuts to the sector.

"Like it or not, we are a large producer of oil and gas, that is a Canadian reality that we have to deal with," said Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault, who was at the announcement on Thursday about Canada's new targets.

Joie Warnock, a representative of labour union Unifor, says workers in the energy sector need a just transition plan as part of Canada's plan to reduce emissions. (Submitted by Unifor)

Even so, Unifor agrees with advocacy group Environmental Defence that Canada should go further and aim for 60 per cent its 2005 levels by 2030, provided the right framework is in place to help its 12,000 members move out of the oil and gas sector.

The Ottawa-based advocacy group commissioned an analysis by energy policy modelling firm Navius Research to get a sense of how that would affect the economy.

The modelling of the organization's proposed plan shows that it would lead to oil and gas production being reduced by 83 per cent by 2030. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson, second from right, Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault, left and Minister of Infrastructure and Communities Catherine McKenna in November 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Part of the organization's proposal is to have a transition plan for oil and gas workers, as their industry winds down in a net zero emissions future. It's a transition that's already begun, Marshall argues, with thousands of layoffs in the industry in the past few years, and it's better to have government intervention rather than an unmanaged transition.

Jobs at stake

Indeed, as a large oil and gas producer, the lives of thousands of Canadians are wrapped up in the industry. An Environmental Defence report estimates there were 170,000 workers in the country's fossil fuel sectors in 2019. Between 2014 to 2019, employment in those sectors dropped by 33,000 positions, or 17 per cent.

A further estimated 17,500 positions have been lost since the onset of the pandemic and associated economic downturn in 2020, according to the same report.

One recent bank report also predicted up to 75 per cent of those working in oil and gas — up to 450,000 people — could be displaced by 2050.

Warnock fully expects a transition away from oil and gas is coming any which way. What can be avoided, however, is it unnecessarily hurting workers. 

"What would happen is, is essentially what is happening now, which is unplanned, unjust transitions. We feel that there should be no involuntary layoffs in the sector," she said.

"We know that there's an energy transformation happening. Get in front of it."

Plans for a Just Transition Act in the works

In 2019, federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau pledged the government would introduce a Just Transition Act to address this transformation and support workers. But the government is yet to introduce such a bill. 

In a statement to CBC News, the Ministry of Natural Resources said it is working on transition legislation, and that it will involve engagement with workers and industry.

"I'm fully committed to fulfilling my mandate from the prime minister," Seamus O'Regan, the natural resources minister, said in a statement to CBC News.

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An unplanned transition is one to avoid, according to Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood, a senior researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. He co-authored a report for the think-tank about what should be included in a potential future Just Transition Act.

"What we've seen in Canada, we have perhaps more experience with this than many countries, is if you have a resource bust and we've seen this with various natural resources in our history, without adequate support, those communities just disappear and there's just really unnecessary hardship and destitution," he said.

Dale Marshall of the advocacy group Environmental Defence says Canada's climate ambition needs to go much further. (Submitted by Dale Marshall)

Mertins-Kirkwood's report says there will need to be strong government intervention to help people and communities truly transition. The government must provide both support and funding for people to retrain and gain new skills, as well as opportunities in new industries where they can put them to use.

That means the government needs to invest in alternative energy industries — renewable energy, such as wind and solar — that can then provide jobs and support communities transitioning from oil and gas, he said.

"Giving someone a year of income support is great. But if they have no job at the end of it, all you've done is buy time for nothing," Mertins-Kirkwood said. 

"So what we advocate for is this idea of a proactive just transition is: create the jobs first and then help people train and transition into them."

The CCPA report estimates that adequate funding for a transition would be $16.5 billion per year at first, declining as Canada gets closer to net-zero emissions. It proposes a six-part framework for just transition legislation, including benefits for affected workers, a Crown corporation to invest in job-creating projects in impacted communities, a training fund to help historically marginalized groups and a commission to oversee the whole effort.

Unifor also sees a future for its members in other fields altogether, such as care services, if the government provides the right kind of investment to create jobs.

Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood, a researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, says government intervention is required for a just transition for oil and gas workers. (Ben Welland)

"There are growing parts of our economy," Warnock said. "Our members are skilled. They have transferable skills."

The oil and gas industry can make significant reductions in emissions with stronger methane regulations, which are currently in place, and which will not force it to significantly reduce production. Canada can therefore hit its 2030 emissions target while holding oil and gas production steady.

But Mertins-Kirkwood points out that the country cannot hit its net-zero goal in 2050 by doing that.

"We're actually making it harder for ourselves in the long term by not making hard decisions in the short term," he said.

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