Some oil and gas workers worry about a 'just transition.' Others think it won't come in their working lives
Ottawa promised help for workers as part of efforts to reach net-zero by 2050
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Kirk Olsen says transitioning away from fossil fuels "is probably a good thing," but as an oil and gas worker, the uncertainty around how that will happen makes him nervous.
"If there was a sure thing around the corner and you knew, I'm just going to slide into this other job, everything's going to be great ... it would make a guy feel a lot better," said Olsen, a heavy equipment mechanic working on the Coastal GasLink pipeline project in Kitimat, B.C.
Olsen has worked on and off in the sector for 12 years. Four years ago, he started his own company supplying and maintaining machinery. He works 20 days on-site, then has 10 days off to travel home to Campbell River, B.C., almost 1,000 kilometres away — a sacrifice he says he's willing to make to provide for his young family.
For him, a "just transition" means the federal government provides training in a new field and makes a commitment that wages won't drop.
Until he has that clarity, Olsen feels "like you worked so hard for something and then it kind of gets taken away," as he told CBC Radio's What on Earth. "I guess that's life, but it's no less frustrating."
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In 2019, as Canada aimed to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, the federal government promised a just transition for oil and gas workers facing a disruption to their livelihoods. Research by TD Economics suggests up to 450,000 workers could be affected, out of the estimated 600,000 Canadians directly or indirectly employed in the industry.
A consultation process was launched in July of this year, inviting feedback on proposed federal legislation that would offer support, such as job training, to those leaving the industry. At the time, Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage described the process as "extremely harmful" to the sector's workers.
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Given the timeframe to achieve net-zero, Travis Hann, who works as a pipefitter near Fort McMurray, Alta., isn't worried. Hann works 12-hour days for two weeks at a time in Alberta, then flies home to spend the next two weeks with his wife and three children in Spanish Room, N.L.
"I'm 37 years old now, so I've probably only got another 25 years or so in the industry," Hann told CBC Radio's The Current.
"Maybe at some point in time, we may have the need to veer toward a greener energy, but I mean, for the foreseeable future, I think this oil and gas industry is something that's needed so bad."
'Lives and livelihoods' at stake
Disruption to the oil and gas industry is unavoidable, says long-time environmentalist Tzeporah Berman. "The question is, is it going to be a shock to the system and leave us scrambling? Or is it going to be a managed decline that has a plan for workers?"
With most major world leaders in Glasgow for the COP26 climate summit, she says it's critical countries commit to a plan and timeline for phasing out fossil fuels.
"That allows us to have certainty to assess who is it going to impact, [and] how do we create both economic diversification and retraining programs so that no one's left behind?" said Berman.
Energy policy expert Jennifer Winter said the sooner Canada's transition strategy can be implemented, the better.
"These are lives and livelihoods we're talking about, and so putting time and effort into that is going to be incredibly important," said Winter, scientific director of the energy and environmental policy research division at the school of public policy at the University of Calgary.
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The federal government has faced some criticism about the two-year gap between pledging a just transition and launching the consultation process. Natural Resources Canada (NRC) did not respond to a question from The Current about why it took so long.
In an emailed statement, NRC said it has received 15,000 responses through the Just Transition website. The consultation process was originally intended to last three months, but has now been extended "until further notice," after being put on hold during the federal election.
The department said it intends to publish a report on the views shared by "a broad range of stakeholders," as well as meetings with provinces, territories and Indigenous organizations.
During the election, the Liberals promised a $2 billion transition fund, but Winter told What on Earth that the first step should be to consider the scope of the problem, "and then we can talk about policy options and what dollars need to be associated [with it]."
She gave the example of Alberta's transition away from coal, which began in 2015. She said the emphasis there was on mine workers, but not enough on how their families and local businesses also relied on that employment.
'Don't keep yourself in that corner'
The consultation's discussion paper cites four principles to guide a just transition, including consultation with Canadians and accounting for regional differences.
Last month, however, the paper drew criticism from Canada West Foundation, an independent, non-partisan think-tank. The foundation argued Ottawa's plan does not explicitly commit to replacing jobs in the same geographic areas that lose them.
The think-tank also said that the government paper makes "very little mention of companies," but argued that the impact on oil and gas companies — and the knock-on effects to local economies — needs due consideration.
Marla Orenstein, the director of the foundation's natural resources centre, called on Ottawa to adjust the proposals.
In its statement, NRC said "it would be premature to commit to any specific changes before the conclusion of consultations," and that more details on proposed legislation and next steps would be available in the coming months.
Randall Benson understands why some workers may be hesitant about making the switch, but said there are a number of benefits to doing so.
Benson worked in the oil and gas industry for three years after he graduated from college, but found it to be at odds with his Indigenous upbringing.
"What I had to do in the industry opposed everything that I felt about the environment," said Benson, who is Cree, Métis and Iroquois.
Benson now runs his own solar energy company, Gridworks, in Edmonton, where he offers training to people hoping to transition out of fossil fuels.
He said wages can be a sticking point for some workers. Benson starts the electricians he employs at $36 per hour. Recently, he spoke to an electrician in the oil and gas industry who said he gets paid closer to $60 per hour.
"They pay incredibly well, so why would some people want to leave that?" Benson said.
But he added that jobs outside the oilsands also have benefits, such as less shift work, less travel and more time with family.
"When it becomes an existential crisis, you know, maybe it might be worth it for some people," he said.
'Two eggs in a basket'
Hann said it would mean the world to him to be able to see his family every evening, but "it would probably be a little bit hard for me to make a move" from the oilpatch outside Fort McMurray.
He thinks training in the renewables sector is a good idea for young people starting out, but if the oil and gas industry did peter out while he had working years left, he'd "certainly find the get-up-and-go to do that."
Benson agrees with Hann that the transition might still take years, and predicts a period where oil and gas is still needed, alongside a growing renewable energy sector.
"I think it's a really great idea to have two eggs in a basket, so to speak," he said.
Calgary-based oil industry consultant David Yager said he accepts the idea of a transition, but said the emphasis should be on finding "a way to make fossil fuels more benign, to reduce emissions from fossil fuels."
"There's nobody better equipped to do this than the Canadian oil and gas industry — so it's not getting out of the business, it's getting better at the business."
Ultimately, Benson said he "can't convince anyone to switch over," but can help those who want to.
He said while the timeframe may not be clear, the transition is coming.
Addressing workers who are considering the move, Benson said, "Just don't keep yourself in that corner. Get as much education as you can … get those tools in your toolkit. And then if something happens, I think you're golden."
Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Julie Crysler and Ellis Choe.