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Oilsands execs say a ‘just transition’ isn’t a worry — it’s their next big ‘boom’

MEG Energy CEO Derek Evans said his worry about the transition isn’t job cuts, it’s a labour shortage
Cenovus CEO Alex Pourbaix announces a multi-year initiative focused on Indigenous communities near the company’s oil sands operations in northern Alberta, at a news conference in Calgary, Alta., Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020. The CEO of one of the biggest oilsands companies in Alberta says transitioning its workforce for a net-zero emissions workforce isn’t about cutting jobs but creating them. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

The CEOs of some of the biggest oilsands companies in Alberta say transitioning their workforce for a net-zero emissions future isn’t about cutting jobs, it’s about creating them.

“We estimated that we will spend somewhere in the range of $70 billion over the next 30 years to decarbonize the production of the oilsands,” Cenovus CEO Alex Pourbaix said in an interview with The Canadian Press this week.

“If we’re successful in doing that, that is going to create a boom in the oil-producing provinces that is equivalent to what happened in the ’80s and the ’90s.”

Cenovus is one of six oilsands companies in the Pathways Alliance, a consortium created to work together to decarbonize their production entirely by 2050. Pourbaix said the companies believe reaching their goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 will create 35,000 jobs.

The “just transition” debate is raging in Canadian politics this week as Alberta politicians slam a federal plan to introduce legislation intended to guide the adjustment to a clean energy economy.

The Liberals have promised such legislation since the 2019 election and are expected to introduce it in the House of Commons sometime this year.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith jumped on reports that a federal memo suggested millions of jobs will be lost in the transition. The memo actually referred to the number of jobs that currently exist in industries that could be affected by decarbonization.

Despite that clarification, Smith doubled down on her insistence that a “just transition” is a plan to shut down Alberta’s energy industry.

“I will fight this ‘Just Transition’ idea with every tool at Alberta’s disposal,” she said in a video posted to Twitter Wednesday.

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley added her voice to the fire, telling the Edmonton Journal in an interview that Ottawa should scrap plans for the legislation.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Wednesday that transitioning to clean energy is about creating good middle-class jobs “in a world that is changing.”

“The energy workers that we rely on, the natural resource workers, will continue to be essential parts of our economy moving forward,” he said.

Randy Boissonnault, the associate finance minister, had a hurried op-ed published in the Edmonton Journal Tuesday decrying Smith’s accusations as fearmongering.

“I can be unequivocal about this: with our sustainable jobs plan, your federal government is interested in creating and supporting jobs, not eliminating them,” he wrote.

MEG Energy CEO Derek Evans told The Canadian Press in an interview that his worry about the transition isn’t job cuts, it’s a labour shortage.

“I’m quite worried, let me put it this way, that we don’t have enough people in Canada to get the job done,” he said.

The Pathways companies are looking to spend $24 billion by 2030 on emissions cutting, two-thirds of it on carbon capture and storage systems. After 2030 they expect to be turning to installations of hydrogen and small nuclear reactors as their energy sources.

All of that will require additional workers to build, install and operate.

Demand for fossil fuels won’t be zero by 2050 but most projections point to a significant dip as electrification takes hold, particularly in transport. Canada and its producers want Canadian products to be the most cleanly produced to keep demand high.

It’s why Pathways was created, said Kendall Dilling, the alliance’s president.

“The energy transition or decarbonization or whatever you want to call it, this is probably the defining challenge in the next couple of decades,” he said.

A decent chunk of the debate may be a battle over semantics.

“Just transition” was coined by the labour movement in the United States in the 1990s to help workers in industries caught up in toxic waste problems. It now plays a role in global climate pacts aimed at helping both fossil fuel workers and people most affected by climate change.

Canada has already used the same language in its efforts to help workers in the shrinking coal industry.

But the term “just transition” has become politically loaded and despised, even by some proponents.

“Workers hate it, I hate it,” said NDP MP Charlie Angus, who is working with the Liberals to develop the legislation as part of the NDP and Liberal supply and confidence deal.

“In my community when they talk about a transition, we knew what that meant: they’re shutting the lights off. It’s not great language and I can see why people get their back up. I get my back up.”

The Liberals seem to agree, although it is still the term used in both their 2019 and 2021 platforms, and their months of consultations to develop the legislation.

Both Boissonault and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson have indicated a preference for calling it a “sustainable jobs plan.”

Whatever it’s called, Pourbaix said a successful net-zero plan will make the entire debate somewhat irrelevant.

“I actually think this the idea of a just transition solves itself if we’re successful in our in our quest to decarbonize our production,” he said. “We ensure the sustaining and even growing of the industry in the country.”

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