Leave Behind Fossil Fuels, not Workers: A Green Transition from Oil and Gas

Opinion by Aryan Bajpai.

A silhouette of a fracking rig against the sunset.

“Green Transition.” “Just Transition.” By now, you’ve likely heard of several terms used to describe the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. The Government of Canada notes a ‘Just Transition’ is a labour market transition and an “approach to economic, environmental and social policy that aims to create an equitable and prosperous future for workers and communities as the world builds a low-carbon economy” [1]. We must recognize that in the current climate crisis and the unpredictable future of the oil and gas industry, it is important to start moving towards said transition, but without leaving any workers behind.


As the world turns to prioritizing net zero emissions as an increasingly urgent goal, it is inevitable that the concept of a transition from oil and gas will become more commonplace. In fact, even the International Energy Agency warned investors to curb any new funding for fossil fuel projects “if we want to reach net zero by 2050” [2]. This piece will address a debate within the oil and gas industry on the transition, a debate over the role of the oil and gas industry in climate action, and the federal government’s role in leading the transition, and conclude with some actions we can take.


Firstly, it is important to note that the oil and gas industry is not a monolith. There are many workers who are concerned about the climate crisis and the future of oil and want to transition away from the industry, there are also many who do not [3]. Travis Hann, an Albertan pipefitter, is one of the workers who wants to stay in the industry based on the high demand for oil and gas. In a 2021 CBC Radio’s ‘The Current’ feature, Hann says “Maybe at some point in time, we may have the need to veer toward a greener energy, but I mean, for the foreseeable future, I think this oil and gas industry is something that's needed so bad” [4].


On the other hand, mechanic Kirk Olsen says, “transitioning away from fossil fuels ‘is probably a good thing,’ but as an oil and gas worker, the uncertainty around how that will happen makes [him] nervous.” [5]. Jenine Campbell-Cove is a member of Saulteau First Nation and a pipeline worker who believes more should be done to help workers transition. Campbell-Cove says she had “been trying to get out of it for so long, but what do you do when you don’t have any transferable skills or education?” [6]. A 2021 poll conducted by Abacus Data (on behalf of worker-led advocacy group Iron and Earth) of 300 Canadian oil and gas workers showed 61% of workers believe Canada should transition to a net-zero economy to address the challenge of climate change [7]. Thus, there is still debate on the transition within the oil and gas industry itself.


Secondly, there is much public debate on the role the oil and gas industry should play in climate action going forward. Though not everyone is always of the same mind, executives of the world’s biggest oil companies have known of the serious effects of their industry on climate change since 1968, even going as far as to publicly deny or ignore them to make profit anyway [8]. Flash forward 53 years later to the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) and there were more delegates present at the summit associated with the fossil fuel industry than any given country’s national delegations [9]. This clearly raises questions of how effective the summit’s solutions were, and to what extent they were influenced by the industry. This is the same industry which has attacked and hindered climate science for decades and has still been allowed to participate in climate summits.


Particularly concerning is the influence of the industry on global and national

environmental discourse, where instead of talking about fossil fuel emissions, there has been only a focus on individual consumers and their energy demand [10]. There have, however, been strides where oil companies have started recognizing the need to offset their emissions, but this is relatively new and also controversial. For example, a recent Global Witness report noted Shell’s carbon capture facility in Alberta is emitting more greenhouse gases than it captures [11]. Thus, there is still contention over the role of the oil and gas industry in climate action, and reasonably so.


Lastly, what is the federal government’s role in all of this, and does it have more of an obligation to listen to climate experts and advocates than the powerful fossil fuel lobby? It might come as somewhat of a relief that the federal government has indeed recognized that climate change is a challenge and opened consultations before it drafts legislation on a ‘Just Transition’ (you can find the relevant Natural Resources Canada consultation and its status, ongoing at the time of writing, here: https://bit.ly/3KGnbee) [12]. However, this is the bare minimum, and the federal government can and should be doing far more to lay the foundations of a transition from fossil fuels. Training programs for oil workers to transfer their skills to renewable and clean energy projects, resources to protect the workers’ jobs and wages in the labour market transition, working with provinces and territories to assist their transitions, and signalling a start to phasing out dependence on oil and gas – these are all some of the examples necessary before the transition occurs.


The federal government has started on some of the above already, including measures announced in Budget 2021 which “will deliver almost 500,000 new training and work opportunities for Canadians, enabling them to take advantage of new opportunities in clean energy sectors” [13]. Consultations and emissions reduction plans, and increasing emissions targets, are all good starting points [14]. However, the issue is that the federal government must also ensure the climate scientists and experts are being heard and listened to over the fossil fuel lobby. Thus, the federal government does have an important role to play in facilitating the transition from oil and gas to clean energy.


It is clear that the climate crisis requires urgent action. Given the significant power of the oil and gas lobby, everyday citizens and consumers don’t often recognize our own power. There are actions we can take both on the legislative level and individual level to encourage climate action. We as citizens and consumers have the ability to hold our representatives in all levels of government accountable, who must in turn hold the oil and gas industry accountable. We can first take the time to learn about what a green economy needs by researching the topic, and then we can advocate accordingly. Our transition to clean energy requires all of us to work together across political ideologies and partisan lines to call on our governments to intensify their transition efforts, and accelerate them, all while ending fossil fuel subsidies and phasing out a reliance on oil and gas in our markets. We know what has to be done; it is time to follow the advice of climate scientists to turn the idea of green transition from oil and gas into climate policy, and subsequently, into reality.


Writer’s Note: My inspiration for this piece came from virtually attending energy transition seminars at a changemakers’ summit called ChangeNOW. While there, I caught the premiere of a 2021 Netflix documentary called “Breaking Boundaries: The Science Of Our Planet” starring Sir David Attenborough and climate scientist Johan Rockström. If you have about an hour to spare, it is a powerful starting point for research on the topic! The trailer is here: https://bit.ly/35u3BSv.

 

Bibliography

1. Natural Resources Canada. “Helping Workers and Communities Thrive in a Net-

Zero Carbon Economy.” Just Transition | Natural Resources Canada. 2022. https://www.rncanengagenrcan.ca/en/collections/just-transition.


2. Chestney, Nina. “End New Oil, Gas and Coal Funding to Reach Net Zero, Says IEA.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, May 18, 2021. https://www.reuters.com/business/environment/radical-change-needed-reach-net-zero-emissions-iea-2021-05-18/.


3. Vermes, Jason. “Transitioning Oil and Gas Workers into New Industries Will Require a 'Hands-on Approach': Researcher | CBC Radio.” CBC/Radio Canada, November 7, 2021. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/checkup/how-much-are-you-willing-to-pay-to-stop-climate-change-1.6239832/transitioning-oil-and-gas-workers-into-new-industries-will-require-a-hands-on-approach-researcher-1.6240124.

4. Moran, Padraig. “Some Oil and Gas Workers Worry about a 'Just Transition.' Others Think It Won't Come in Their Working Lives | CBC Radio.” CBC/Radio Canada, November 9, 2021. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/over-a-barrel-the-current-for-nov-1-2021-1.6232557/some-oil-and-gas-workers-worry-about-a-just-transition-others-think-it-won-t-come-in-their-working-lives-1.6238713.


5. Ibid.


6. Yourex-West, Heather. “Should I Stay or Should I Go: Oil, Gas Workers Consider Prospects amid Global Energy Transition.” Global News, September 2, 2021. https://globalnews.ca/news/8126202/oil-gas-workers-global-energy-transition/.


7. De Souza, Mike. “Majority of Oil, Gas and Coal Workers Want Climate Solutions That Create Net-Zero Energy Jobs, Says Poll.” The Narwhal, July 14, 2021. https://thenarwhal.ca/canada-oil-gas-iron-earth-poll/ .


8. Milman, Oliver. “Oil Industry Knew of 'Serious' Climate Concerns More than 45 Years Ago.” The Guardian, April 13, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/apr/13/climate-change-oil-industry-environment-warning-1968.


9. McGrath, Matt. “COP26: Fossil Fuel Industry Has Largest Delegation at Climate Summit.” BBC News, November 8, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-59199484#:~:text=COP26%3A%20Fossil%20fuel%20industry%20has%20largest%20delegation%20at%20climate%20summit,-By%20Matt%20McGrath&text=There%20are%20more%20delegates%20at,shared%20with%20the%20BBC%20shows.&text=They%20found%20that%20503%20people,accredited%20for%20the%20climate%20summit.


10. Powell, Alvin. “Oil Companies Discourage Climate Action, Study Says.” Harvard Gazette, September 28, 2021. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2021/09/oil-companies-discourage-climate-action-study-says/.


11. Zoledziowski, Anya. “Shell's Massive Carbon Capture Plant Is Emitting More than It's Capturing.” Vice News, January 20, 2022. https://www.vice.com/en/article/7kb43x/shell-quest-carbon-capture-plant-alberta.


12. Natural Resources Canada, 2022.


13. Government of Canada, People-Centred Just Transition: Discussion Paper (Natural Resources Canada, 2021). https://www.rncanengagenrcan.ca/sites/default/files/pictures/home/just_transition_discussion_paper_-_en_-_july_15.pdf.


14. Environment and Climate Change Canada. “Canada to Launch Consultations on New Climate Commitments This Month, Establish Emissions Reduction Plan by the end of March 2022” Government of Canada, December 3, 2021. https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/news/2021/12/canada-to-launch-consultations-on-new-climate-commitments-this-month-establish-emissions-reduction-plan-by-the-end-of-march-2022.html.