Ottawa's proposal for transitioning oil and gas workers to new jobs insufficient, says think tank

·3 min read
Workers perform maintenance on an oil rig in Alberta.  (Kyle Bakx/CBC - image credit)
Workers perform maintenance on an oil rig in Alberta. (Kyle Bakx/CBC - image credit)

The federal government's propositions to support oil and gas workers as Canada moves away from fossil fuel production fail to address some of the big challenges of that industrial shift, according to the Canada West Foundation.

The independent, non-partisan think tank says there are two key pillars missing from Ottawa's "Just Transition" strategy.

It also says the categories outlined are "insufficient and do not capture all the critical elements that must inform a just transition."

The federal government launched a discussion paper and a three-month consultation period on its proposed oil and gas worker transition policy in July.

The policy aims to support workers and move them to new jobs as the country slowly pivots from carbon-intensive sectors — in July.

That legislation is under development.

Ottawa's paper is examining four elements:

  • Engaging people and stakeholders on the path forward.

  • Creating steps in line with regional needs.

  • Being inclusive of diversity in the changes.

  • Securing international co-operation.

The government is also looking at creating an advisory body to give advice on transition strategies.

"It was like saying how are we going to build a house and saying, 'Well, we're going to have a nice garden and let's make sure we have well-insulated windows and a big mirror in the bathroom.'

"All of those things are fantastic, but it's lacking certain fundamental principles that you also need in order to get things built really strongly," said Marla Orenstein, the director of the foundation's natural resources centre.

The foundation is asking Ottawa to amend its plan to make regional supports proportional to the job losses in those places, and to focus its support around workers, but not forget about the fallout on communities who will lose revenue streams and the companies that may go under.

"It's not going to be helpful for somebody who's losing their job in a rural Prairies community if that other job springs up, but it's in tech in downtown Montreal," she said.

Natural Resources Canada said it's going to take some time.

"It is too early in the process to commit to specific suggestions, proposed actions or revisions," the agency said in a statement following the publication of this story.

"A just transition must be nationally coherent, but driven by regional and local circumstances."

The government has received 16,000 submissions on the legislation so far. Because of delays due to the election, the consultation period is remaining open until further notice.

Lessons from the Rust Belt, Newfoundland and the U.K.

Orenstein says examples like the collapse of communities in the U.S. Rust Belt as manufacturing declined, in Newfoundland after the cod moratorium and in the U.K. after coal mining was phased out are warnings to Canada.

"What we see is a hollowing out of communities, a degrading of the infrastructure, the value of people's assets and homes disappearing and things turning into ghost towns. It's not been pretty. And that's something that I think everybody really wants to avoid."

The federal discussion paper says that "the Government of Canada also recognizes that the transition will have varying impacts across the country, between regions, sectors and demographics."

A report from TD Economics estimates that up to 450,000 workers are at risk of displacement between now and 2050. About 600,000 Canadians are employed in the oil and gas sector, per that research.

The Trudeau Liberal government has pledged to invest $2 billion to retrain oil and gas workers. During the election, the party also promised to phase out oil and gas subsidies by 2023 — two years ahead of the original plan.

Ottawa is aiming to move Canada to net-zero emissions by 2050, with other carbon reduction milestones along the way, like a 40-45 per cent reduction below 2005 levels by 2030.

The federal government is continuing to consult with provinces, stakeholders and the public on the legislation. The feedback will be compiled in a report, which is to be released publicly.

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