“They will not be left behind.”

So said Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan at a news conference this week. The “they” he was referring to are workers in the oil industry. “Workers,” he continued, “will be at the centre of a clean energy future.”

If Canadians are to get onside with the urgent need to transition to green energy, it is essential that the transition not be made on the backs of those who depend on fossil fuels for their livelihood. They must be assured of an important part to play in the new energy world, not only because it’s the fair thing to do but because support for renewables cannot risk determined resistance by those who see themselves as victims of change.

We are currently seeing the results of this kind of resistance in the United States. The only beneficiaries are demagogues like Donald Trump. Antagonism toward necessary change cost the United States years of environmental progress and continues to mount a threat.

So our federal government’s commitment to putting workers “at the centre of a clean energy future” is a welcome sign. Natural Resources Minister O’Regan has launched a three-month consultation process asking for feedback from workers, labour groups and industry on proposed legislation that would offer supports for workers leaving the oil industry. The process is expected to produce recommendations that will guide government decision-making and creation of a Just Transition Advisory Body.

On cue, Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage attacked the engagement process as “extremely harmful” to workers, suggesting Alberta has the problem well in hand with regulations and technologies such as carbon capture and storage. The reactionaries dig in.

However, not all Albertans are buying into their government’s rosy optimism about the industry. Major players continue to cut their workforces, and with enrolment in oil and gas engineering at historic lows, the University of Calgary recently announced it is suspending admission of new students to its undergraduate program. The province is slowly opening its eyes to reality.

If the Liberals are serious about a worker-centred transition, if this initiative is more than election optics, we might just get the popular support climate action requires to succeed, even in Alberta.

One thought on “Oil workers at the centre—getting transition priorities right”
  1. Transitions are complex, sometimes impossible, especially if workers are moving to jobs that require a highly educated workforce. I read some months ago that Alberta had somewhat larger percentage of workers with no post-secondary because, for a while, education wasn’t critical to a high-wage job in the oil patch.

    I suppose interest in retraining will be inversely proportional to the number of years one has been out of school. There is no “just add water and stir” solution.

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