Big Reset Leaves Oil Workers in a Lurch, Just Transition Can Move them Forward

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A Fair Reset: Big Reset Leaves Oil Workers in a Lurch, Just Transition Can Move them Forward
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What does it mean to love Newfoundland and Labrador’s oil workers in a time of climate crisis and global energy transformations? The answer: supporting a just transition.

This is a “code red” moment for humanity as the consequences of the climate crisis unfold around the world and here at home. If nothing is done, people will suffer in myriad ways, including the careers of oil and gas workers.

As scientists have been warning us for decades, our emissions are warming the planet and creating an environmental catastrophe from which there may well be no return. Just last month, the world’s scientists warned us again, in no uncertain terms, that human activity is driving the climate crisis with unprecedented heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods, extreme storms, and sea level rise.

Sadly they predict much worse is to come. Indeed, last week, over 200 health journals called on political leaders to stop rising emissions because they pose the “greatest threat to global public health.”

Yet despite all the mounting scientific evidence, Moya Greene’s “Big Reset” report pays lip service to the climate crisis. Greene’s transition is more like greenwashing. She recommends governments rethink royalties, local benefit requirements, and environmental regulations to help grow the oil sector, to then fund decarbonization. But this is like eating an anti-cancer diet while smoking more cigarettes, to borrow James Rowe’s analogy. Instead, we must act immediately to enact a just transition away from oil and toward a low carbon and fairer economy.

Furthermore, for all the talk about wanting to create a prosperous future, the Greene Report leaves workers in a lurch, tied to an industry in decline with few supports to carry their highly technical, transferable skills to the green energy jobs just around the corner. 

New f-words for a world in climate crisis: fossil fuels

There is no question that the burning of fossil fuels is fueling the climate crisis. The newest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report documented that the burning of fossil fuels—oil, gas, and coal—has been responsible for about 64% of global emissions since 1750, and 86% over the last decade. Therefore the U.N. Secretary-General observed that this report “must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet.”

As the IPCC report noted, “Every tonne of CO₂ emissions adds to global warming.” And NL’s oil sector adds a lot. In recent years, the offshore production sites emitted roughly 2 million tons of greenhouse gases annually. Yet this is only a fraction of the full total. The emissions from the consumption of the over 2 billion barrels of oil produced from offshore NL since 1997 is likely approaching a billion tonnes of emissions.

So while Moya Greene, industry representatives, and some political leaders might claim that our oil is “clean,” “low carbon,” or “net zero,” the reality is that however oil might be produced in NL’s offshore, it is burned somewhere else with a terrible climate cost.

Even so, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador vows to increase production, aiming to have 100 new offshore exploation wells drilled by 2030. The tragic irony is that this is the year by which the global community ought to halve its emissions to have some chance of climate stability.

Newfoundland and Labrador have other, fairer options that can limit the climate crisis, while showing love and respect to oil and gas workers.

Green transition is the jobs opportunity of our age

Many policy experts have underlined the enormous economic benefits of transitioning to a clean energy economy. Last fall, Mark Carney, former Bank of Canada governor, underscored to the financial sector that this transition is “the greatest commercial opportunity of our age.” It’s also a job-rich one: the International Labour Organization estimates 24 million green energy jobs will be created this decade via the global energy transition.

Energy and economic transitions are already underway around the world and Newfoundland and Labrador is now running behind. The European Union recently approved a €17.5-billion Just Transition Fund to support communities most affected by the shift off fossil fuels, as part of its Covid-19 recovery spending plan. US President Biden has also committed $4 billion to accelerate a clean energy transformation across all of America’s economy.

In these countries and many others, climate change is now the centrepiece to economic recovery. Governments are investing in renewable energy, in new electric power lines to deliver renewable energy, in building electric vehicle charging stations, as well as in green building and retrofitting existing structures to make them more energy efficient. All this is being done to make their economies more sustainable, but also to create millions of good-paying jobs—jobs that oil and gas workers can transition into with the right education, skills development and financial support.

What would a Just Transition look like for Newfoundland and Labrador?

What, then, is required to create a transition that confronts the climate crisis and supports working people in seizing the benefits of the global energy transition?

It takes governments at all levels to collaborate with labour organizations, workers, Indigenous communities, industry representatives, local communities, and civil society organizations to:

  1. Support workers in their transition from fossil fuel industries to low carbon sectors by providing opportunities for re-skilling (via vocational training and universal post-secondary education). Ensure social protections (income and benefit support, pension bridging, and early retirement assistance) are available for workers who cannot transition.
  2. Develop an inclusive and transparent planning process via democratic clean energy institutions. More than ever, we need the real input of workers, communities, and scientific experts in government policy to ensure that no one is left behind.
  3. On that basis, develop plans to rapidly transition our economy and labour market to create and use clean energy, improve energy efficiency, expand green public transit, and adopt other sustainable solutions for our planet.
  4. Redirect the billions in fossil fuel subsidies and supports  toward job creation in mass building retrofits, transportation electrification, and waste management and recycling.
  5. Expand public investments for climate-resilient infrastructure, like green roofs, green parking areas, natural drainage basins, as well as for the redevelopment of natural infrastructure (such as restored wetlands) as well as working lands (two-stage ditches, buffer strips along highways, and natural flood basins).
  6. Respect local communities, especially Indigenous Peoples’ rights and sovereignty throughout. It is critical to ensure that just transition efforts respect the rights and sovereignty of Indigenous Peoples, especially their right to free, prior, and informed consent as per the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Already people across Canada are experiencing fires, record-setting heat waves, extreme floods and hurricanes. And yet we will look back on this summer as one of the cooler and calmer ones in our lifetimes. Much worse is coming.

So now, as a province that has staked its economic development on a lead cause of this crisis, Newfoundland and Labrador needs to capitalize on the skills and experience oil and gas workers have developed over years in that industry and plan for a just transition away from oil, one that will protect and strengthen our communities and provide good jobs that do not risk our children’s futures.

Dr. John Peters is a Research Fellow at the Inter-University Centre for Research on Globalization and Work at the University of Montreal. His new book, Jobs with Inequality: Financialization, Post-Democracy, and Labour Market Deregulation in Canada (University of Toronto Press), will be available in February 2022. @JPetersBluGreen

Dr. Angela Carter is an Associate Professor at the University of Waterloo’s Department of Political Science & Balsillie School of International Affairs. She is the author of Fossilized: Environmental Policy in Canada’s Petro-Provinces, winner of the 2021 Donald Smiley Prize for the best book published in a field relating to the study of government and politics in Canada. @AngelaVCarter

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