'Just transition' bill coming in 2023, natural resources minister says

Jonathan Wilkinson, minister of natural resources, attends a tree planting announcement in New Westminster, B.C., on April 22, 2022. Wilkinson says he hopes to move forward on two major mandate items this year.  (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Jonathan Wilkinson, minister of natural resources, attends a tree planting announcement in New Westminster, B.C., on April 22, 2022. Wilkinson says he hopes to move forward on two major mandate items this year. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson is moving ahead with two major mandate items in 2023 — introducing "just transition" legislation and finalizing a major Atlantic electricity project.

Wilkinson told CBC News the government will, he hopes, introduce early this year the long-awaited legislation to help workers in the oil and gas sector move into green energy jobs.

The proposed bill has been a lightning rod for criticism from oil-producing provinces, which worry it would be the nail in the coffin of the oil and gas industry and the thousands who rely on it for work. But Wilkinson describes the bill as an action plan for "sustainable jobs."

"I said it many times publicly that I do not believe that the challenge we are going to face is that there are workers who are displaced that will not find other good-paying jobs," Wilkinson said.

"I am actually quite worried that there are so many opportunities … we will not have enough workers to fill the jobs."

Wilkinson is working on the proposed legislation with Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan and his opposition NDP critic, Charlie Angus, in keeping with that party's confidence-and-supply agreement with the Liberal government.

"I think we started in very different places and very different understandings," said Angus, describing negotiations on the bill between the Liberals and New Democrats, which began last year. "I'm hoping we move to a recognition of what needs to be on the table."

Angus said progress has been made, with the NDP pushing for a substantial financial commitment and for labour unions and Indigenous communities to be at the heart of the legislation.

Just transition was a condition of the confidence-and-supply deal, signed last year to keep Justin Trudeau's minority government in power until 2025 in exchange for action on NDP policy priorities.

Loop agreement to be finalized

Wilkinson also said the Liberals hope in the coming months to finalize an agreement on the Atlantic Loop — a proposed $5 billion project to deliver hydroelectricity from Labrador and Quebec to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The latter two provinces have committed to phasing out their carbon-intensive coal-fired plants by 2030.

Wilkinson said the project is an initial step in tackling the "enormous challenge" of decarbonizing and expanding the electricity grid.

More than 80 per cent of Canada's electricity comes from renewables or non-emitting nuclear power generation. The Liberals have committed to a net-zero electricity grid by 2035 while also meeting the challenge of expanding power generation to meet skyrocketing demand; expected to double between now and 2050.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press
Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Several reports have sparked concerns that Canada's electricity system won't be able to handle the strain that could be placed on it by the rise of electric vehicles and industries switching from fossil fuels.

"I don't think that many people understand how important the electricity grid is going forward nor the scale of the challenges that we face. I often say that the electricity grid is the railway of our time," Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson didn't say how much money the federal government would commit to the Atlantic Loop, but New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are asking the federal government to chip in $2 billion.

Wilkinson says the federal government is also committed to supporting provinces and territories as they decarbonize their electricity grids. Through what Wilkinson and his team call "regional energy resource tables," his office has convened one-on-one forums with nine provinces and territories to strategize ways to achieve shared net-zero goals.

Noticeably absent from the tables is Alberta — the province with the most emissions. Wilkinson says he hopes this year to bring it and another holdout, Saskatchewan, to the talks. Both provinces have expressed ongoing concerns about the federal government's environmental policies which they say encroach on their constitutional jurisdiction over natural resources.

Quebec and Nunavut, Wilkinson said, will also soon be signing up to participate in a regional energy resource tables.