Wouldn’t you think that renewable energy employment would be uplifting fossil fuel communities and remaking climate politics? Not so fast. Eliminating jobs in the fossil fuel sector has become highly controversial.
Language in headlines and social media posts is reinforcing the place and power of the fossil fuel industry, helping to keep it from becoming little more than stranded assets and from being held accountable for the climate crisis. The words “just transition” are a not-so-secret code that triggers mistrust and confusion among the energy workforce — the same workers who are most likely to benefit from the renewable energy employment marketplace.
Generally, a just transition is defined as programs, services, legislation, and practices that include equity opportunities for all in the move from fossil fuels to renewable energy. I’ve written several times here at CleanTechnica about a just transition and how fears about eliminating jobs are unwarranted (see here, here, here, and here, among others). But what seemed less evident to me then and now a bit naïve now is the degree to which the fossil fuel industry has turned its mighty propaganda forces against renewables while, concurrently, embellishing their professed concern for worker livelihoods.
The Case Study of Western Canada
Canada’s western provinces are a good example of the cognitive dissonance around a just transition. Controversy has erupted over federal government legislation intended to help the fossil fuel labor force transition to a greener economy. Union and community leaders are warning politicization of the “Just Transition” bill obscures the needs of workers.
In response, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is expected to table its workforce transition bill this spring, while continuing to pursue goals to slash climate pollution. Trudeau acknowledges all the while that the sooner Alberta’s “political class” understands that the future is not to be feared, the better.
The western provincial oil and gas sector employs around 185,000 workers, making the bill a hot topic in Alberta ahead of a provincial election in May. Alberta’s Conservative Premier Danielle Smith wrote on Twitter recently about Canada’s need to amend its “just transition” renewable focus in order to remember and respect fossil fuel energy, kinda the “don’t forget them that brought you here” mantra.
It's time for Ottawa to 'just transition' their strategy and allow Alberta to supply reliable energy to the world, especially our allies.https://t.co/t9BxW2UKj3 #cdnpoli #abpoli #ableg #JustTransition
— Danielle Smith (@ABDanielleSmith) February 2, 2023
According to Reuters, Smith is using the threat of job losses to attack Trudeau and rally her conservative base, although she has been criticized for misinterpreting how many jobs may be at risk.
The government of Alberta — Canada’s main crude-producing province — claims the legislation will dismantle the oil and gas industry that makes up 5% of Canada’s GDP. Alberta and Saskatchewan recorded the highest crude oil production of any province or territory in Canad; in 2020, both provinces produced an excess of 24 million cubic meters of crude oil. Domestically, the Canadian oil and gas industry insists it measures the economic benefits of oil and gas, such as employment, investments, and government revenues, in addition to its profits. It argues that such benefits such as lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and a decrease in energy poverty could be realized, with a send-the-problem elsewhere attitude, if more of Canada’s responsibly developed oil and gas were exported to developing nations.
“This shouldn’t be a political issue, this is an issue about what’s really happening in the global economy,” said Gil McGowan, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL). Instead, McGowan suggests the focus should be on helping communities adjust to sweeping industrial changes and economic diversification, pointing to Alberta’s recent coal phase out as a case study.
Later this year, Alberta’s last coal-fired power station, Genesee Unit 3, is undergoing a dual-fuel transition and will shift to 100% natural gas-fired in 2023. As a result, just over a decade after Alberta commissioned its last coal plant, the phase out once scheduled for 2030 is nearly complete. More than 3,100 people worked in the province’s thermal coal industry in 2015. Some workers took early retirement, others went north to the oil patch or moved to other industries, while others found work in mine reclamation or the newly converted gas power stations.
Reasons for the Disconnect over Eliminating Jobs in the Fossil Fuel Industry
A just transition offers potential resolutions for the so-called “environment vs. jobs dilemma,” the conflicting demands of economic production, and ecosystem protection. As environmental justice movements evolve and expand into climate and energy, the just transition has concurrently shifted in focus from polluting industries to greenhouse gases and energy mixes, while workers remain a central concern.
It seems that an “environment-labor nexus” forms part of broader political economic discourses that lay the ideological boundaries for how wealth and power is organized and distributed in a major energy shift.
- Reactionary Discourses respond to economic and social threats as they arise. For workers, this involves passive approaches that prioritize job protection over environmental or climate action and centers neoliberal values of individualism, competition, and free market solutions. There is no deliberate mechanism for inclusivity or proactive decarbonization, so this discourse precludes the possibility of a just transition that is anything but rhetorical.
- Green Growth and Green Jobs Discourses promote ecological modernization with employment and environmental reform through market incentives. Technological advancement frames the low-carbon transition as a profitable, win-win opportunity. Market-led change is indirect or voluntary in nature.
- Green Keynesian Discourses center sustainable development managed through a system of government intervention, regulation, and social guarantees. The realignment of development patterns with sustainability through targeted stimulus, strategic taxation, public sector employment, and a strong welfare system.
- Public Ownership and Energy Democracy Discourses feature collective ownership and control of energy systems for rapid and deep decarbonization, balancing the interests of entire populations through direct participation. Social Power influences decision-making and seeks to remove the energy grid from market forces. Energy Democracy is potentially transformative.
- Green Revolution Discourses call for the complete restructuring of political and social relations to break away from growth imperatives and the systematic exploitation of nature and historically marginalized groups, rejecting contemporary capitalist production and aims to reconceptualize or decommodify the human-nature relationship.
The transition to renewables seems fully capable of challenging the doctrine of economic growth. It seems feasible that proposing a just transition would expand collective ownership led by broad-based unions alongside communities and including a variety of workers. But, to merge discourses above, the reality remains far from this lofty ideal.
The just transition narrative is being met with deep skepticism and even anger from oil and gas workers. The reason why is more complex than you might think. These workers perceive that a simple transition to renewable jobs will typically pay them less – or these jobs don’t even exist at all. The current fossil fuel workers don’t believe the world can quickly pivot to 100% renewable energy. A 2022 EIA report suggests the US will likely continue to rely on oil and natural gas for just under 70% of its energy needs through at least 2050, which confound efforts to persuade its workers to make the move to renewables.
Code Words: Framing the Loss of Fossil Fuel Jobs
Over 100 countries have set, or are planning to set, net zero GHG emissions targets. Achieving this pace and scale of decarbonization demands significant restructuring of national economies and societies, usually characterized as uniformly good. However, increasing attention is being paid to the possible burdens associated with the low carbon transition and how this might disproportionately affect already-vulnerable social groups and create newly vulnerable groups.
Ex-coal miner Len Austin, who now runs a Canadian government-funded Just Transition center supporting former coal workers, said policymakers made a “really good effort” with programs such as retirement bridging, relocation packages, and $12,000 retraining vouchers. But there was insufficient funding for economic diversification and infrastructure projects within coal communities to create new jobs. Governments need to understand not everyone can work in renewables, he adds. “It’s 100% not that simple…to go from making $100,000 to $40,000 plays a big part in the decision-making that comes with the idea of losing your livelihood.”
Historically, unions have guaranteed fossil fuel workers reassurances like job security, higher wages, health care coverage, and pensions — protections that were won through years of bargaining and negotiations. “There’s a lot of anxiety,” admits Mark Brenner, co-director of the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center. “How do we make sure that there’s a just transition for those workers who are in carbon-intensive industries?”
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