By Karen Cooling, Marc Lee and Shannon Daub
The steady stream of bad news from Alberta’s oilpatch is a potent reminder of the boom-and-bust nature of being a resource-commodity exporter. It’s a story deeply understood in resource communities, as decisions made halfway around the world dictate whether you will have a job tomorrow.
The outlook for fossil fuel-exporting industries is likely to get worse if governments negotiate a new global deal to limit carbon emissions this year. On the heels of a climate deal with China, U.S. President Barack Obama stated in his State of the Union address that:
[quote]No challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.[/quote]
Leaving it in the ground
It is now recognized that anywhere from two-thirds to four-fifths of proven fossil fuel reserves worldwide must be left in the ground to avert catastrophe. Canadian politicians live in denial of these facts, pushing instead for more bitumen, coal and LNG exports.
But what does all this mean for people whose livelihoods rely on these industries? We talked with resource workers around B.C. who have experienced boom-and-bust cycles first-hand — especially in forestry. What we uncovered is a very unhappy legacy. One concern is that climate action could mean the loss of well-paying jobs and a repeat of this tragic pattern.
A “just transition”
As we plan for a transition to a zero-carbon economy, we will need to ensure a “just transition” for oil and gas workers, who should not have to pay the price of doing the right thing on climate change.
In past resource busts, families have faced extreme financial and emotional instability due to job losses. There are also ripple effects throughout the economy, as reduced spending forces the closure of small businesses and service providers, municipal government budgets collapse and the residential housing market becomes glutted with “stranded assets.”
Stable management of fossil-fuel industries over a two-or three-decade wind-down period with a just transition plan can get us off the resource roller-coaster and better serve workers, communities and the economy.
How to build a sustainable future
Much work will be required to build the zero-emission economy we need but we should embrace that. Building new, green infrastructure for the future includes investments in district energy systems, localized food systems, regional rapid transit, efficient buildings and “zero waste” management of materials — all of which can be a major economic benefit in rural and resource communities.
We also need to stop lumping in all resource sectors together. While fossil-fuel industries are at the heart of the climate problem, there can and should be a bright future for renewable resources like forestry. With strong stewardship and enhanced value-added, forestry in B.C. could support an additional 20,000 good permanent jobs — far more than will arise from any LNG development. This means reversing direction on forestry policies that have gutted the industry and its connection to supporting communities.
A “Green Social Contract”
A coherent, managed approach would also allow for planned transitions for workers that include income supports, skills training and apprenticeships. This means investing in skills that are transferable from carbon-intensive to green industries. Proactive planning and collaboration across government, industry and unions is critical for ensuring a just transition.
This new “green social contract” will require a reallocation of financial resources. We recommend creating a just transition fund out of resource royalties or carbon tax revenues. The fund could enhance income security for workers, support early retirement initiatives for some and help people through retraining and job search processes.
Rather than trying to cultivate the next boom (think LNG), our aspirations should be to develop a high-quality, full-employment strategy that supports workers, families and communities to transition beyond fossil fuels.
Karen Cooling is a former representative with the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers’ Union. Marc Lee and Shannon Daub are with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. This piece draws on a new study, Just Transition: Creating a Green Social Contract for BC’s Resource Workers.