Wendy Berry says people will drive a couple of hours from Red Deer, Alta., for the made-from-scratch pizza that she serves up at her restaurant in the hamlet of Tomahawk, but that’s not enough to keep her going these days.
She is worried sick about paying the mortgage and having enough left over to feed her family now that the shuttering of Canada’s coal industry put an end to the catering side of her business.
It was supposed to be a “just transition” — that buzzy phrase that was on the tips of everyone’s tongues at the global climate talks in Madrid this winter, and that made it into the federal Liberal election platform as a commitment to help fossil-fuel workers who are regulated out of a job as the government pushes us towards a low-carbon economy.
But when Berry hears that expression, she fires back with some tough questions that have no satisfactory answers.
“What exactly is a just transition?” she asks. “Do we have something else in place for when we shut down our fossil fuels?”
Berry and the rest of her community are a lesson in real time for the federal government as it contemplates how to push Canada to become a low-carbon economy. Coal mining and coal-fired electricity in Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are being phased out or radically altered to meet the country’s climate-change goals. The thousands of workers employed at these facilities and living in 50 nearby communities are on the front lines of decarbonization, the first to feel the profound effects of a massive shift away from fossil fuels.
They are a real-life test case, exposing what works and what doesn’t in our attempt to move humanely, with compassion, away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy.
With an eye to the acute disruption that decarbonization implies, the federal Liberals promised during the last election campaign to legislate a “just transition act” that would require governments to give workers help with training, support and new opportunities.
Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan’s office says work has begun on getting that legislation together, and they point to their work with coal workers as the way forward.
Berry and many local politicians and coal workers in the area are quick to say they know coal mining and coal-powered electricity hurts the environment, raises greenhouse gas emissions, and can’t continue as is. And they acknowledge the help provincial and federal governments have offered to help local communities figure out their next steps.
“I get it,” says Berry, 55.
But there have been some stumbling blocks in government support along the way — unintended consequences, lack of foresight, and arbitrary limitations that leave some people, like Berry, out on a limb.
Her small business was dependent on the coal industry. A third of her revenue came from providing hot lunch to the workers at the mine nearby. But as coal production is cut back and power producers switch to using natural gas, the numbers of well-paid coal workers buying employees buying Berry’s lunch have dwindled dramatically.
Some of them have moved away permanently. Others are in desperate straits, taking on new jobs with low pay. Berry talks about a woman she knows who took the retraining help offered to her but ended up landing a job at Walmart, where she is competing against employees 25 years younger than her for shifts at a much lower pay grade than what she was used to.
Berry’s former staff of 15 is now just an occasional shift for family members. As a restaurant owner, Berry doesn’t have access to the retraining and redevelopment funding, since she’s not directly employed in the coal industry. Instead, she finds herself paying an extra few hundred dollars a month to cover the rising tax on her utilities. She figures she needs to sell an extra 30 to 40 hamburgers a month. “I didn’t even get a free light bulb. Come on!”
Governments are actually lining up to play a part in the just transition for coal — provincial, federal and municipal alike. Unions are heavily involved, the companies are engaged, and common conversation in affected towns frequently turns to brainstorming about how to move forward.
Tens of millions of dollars are on the table to ease the way.
In Alberta, the provincial government under Rachel Notley put $40 million into programs to bridge older workers to retirement, help other workers find new jobs and subsidize moving costs. They followed up with another $5 million for communities to diversify their economies. Saskatchewan just offered up $10 million.
At the federal level, Ottawa has budgeted $185 million so far, for transition away from coal. Of that, $35 million is earmarked for skills and training, and $150 million is for infrastructure and economic development. All signs point to more in upcoming budgets.
There have been task forces and reports and community meetings and endless discussions about how to make sure the money meets the needs of workers.
But what the governments didn’t fully anticipate was the speed of the transition itself.
Former prime minister Stephen Harper gave Canada until 2030 to move away from coal, a timeline adopted by the Trudeau government in 2016. But in Alberta, the Notley government added a massive $1.4 billion incentive, using carbon-tax revenues, for companies to pick up the pace — and they responded faster than many had predicted. They are already in the midst of switching to natural gas in some places — saving money and employing many fewer people — or simply shutting down earlier than planned.
“It caught everyone off guard, completely,” says Matt Wayland, who represented the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers on the federal government’s task force for a just transition for coal workers.
In theory, the key to the “just” part of the transition was to allow enough lead time for companies to change their production, workers to train up and find new jobs if necessary, and for communities to tilt their economic base toward clean energy. Those changes can take years.
Instead, despite the millions in government programming, the mayor of Parkland County is suddenly worried about firefighters.
Parkland County is the epicentre of coal transition in Canada, the area near Edmonton that hosts about half the province’s coal-fired generating units. Mayor Rod Shaigec says about a quarter of his municipal tax base was directly related to coal, but that’s now shrinking rapidly.
The municipal government has been setting aside $2 million a year to deal with the anticipated loss of tax revenue, but it’s not enough, and the volunteer firefighting ranks speak to why.
When coal was flourishing, half the county’s volunteer firefighters were employed by TransAlta, and the company actively encouraged them to participate. But now, the force of 120 firefighters has dropped to 100 to cover an enormous area. The municipal government has had to dig into its budget to hire three full-time professional firefighters. And they’re still short.
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Shaigec knows he needs to push hard to diversify the local economy, enhance the agricultural base and lure in more investment. He is eyeing the government funding, and has plenty of transition planning in the works, from infrastructure to attracting new business. But it’s not happening fast enough to deal with the shift away from coal and its unintended consequences.
“There’s tremendous opportunity,” he says. “But it’s challenging.”
What does “just transition” mean in reality for his constituents? “Some would say we’re just waiting, we’re just waiting, we’re just waiting. And nothing’s happening.”
Over in Estevan, Sask., where about 1,300 workers are employed in the surrounding area’s coal mines and coal-powered plants, anxiety is running high — but not despair.
Denise Ludwig is a 61-year-old retired nurse with too many ties to the coal industry to count. Her husband, Roy, who is also the mayor of Estevan, has worked in coal mining for 40 years. Their closest friends, her father — they all spent years if not their entire careers in the sector. Coal mining has been the backbone of the community since the 1800s.
“I’ve been around it a lot,” she says. “My whole life.”
When they get together to talk about the future of the community, the chatter inevitably turns to brainstorming about what could be done to stave off hard times — through embracing new forms of green energy production, or finding better ways to use coal.
“I see our community pulling together a lot and trying to figure out ways to keep our community thriving.”
And it’s that sentiment that is at the heart of the recommendations from the federal task force that travelled to coal communities across the country in 2018 to learn what works and what doesn’t. Governments, the task force said, need to plan well in advance, listen carefully to affected people from the get-go, and tailor their solutions for each community.
“Coal workers, their families, and communities fear that without careful and inclusive planning, they may face devastating impacts from the coal phase-out,” their report states.
“Workers and community members expressed their dissatisfaction with how the government decided and announced the phase-out in the first place, pointing to limited or no consultation about the impacts for both provincial power grids and for the coal mine and electricity-generation workforces.”
In Tomahawk at the Kountry Kitchen, they’re tossing around ideas about how to move away from coal, and onto something more compatible with climate change, something that brings with it the high-paying steady jobs that the coal industry provided for so long. In Estevan, they’re having daily conversations about the viability of carbon capture and storage, or other ways to make coal so clean that Canada can get closer to its emissions-reduction targets.
“We do understand that we need to move to a greener society. We have to move to a greener world,” says Mayor Ludwig. But clean coal should be part of that future, he adds. “Just because it’s black doesn’t mean it’s dirty. We do have a future. We do have a role to play … Let’s perfect it.”
Another key lesson from the coal experience so far is that some workers need a lot more government help than access to extra financial support and a jobs board at a local transition centre. Some need a generous bridge to retirement. Some need more flexible rules so they don’t get penalized for taking a job quickly. Some need to have their hands held as they navigate a complex job market.
Even as other countries are watching Canada to see how it handles transition, Gil McGowan, the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, is looking to Germany, where anyone who loses a job to the coal phase-out is assured another position.
“There’s still more work to be done and kinks to be worked out,” says McGowan, who was on the federal task force. “We didn’t get it completely right.”
And for people like Wendy Berry, the restaurant owner, strategic help from governments and investors alike in economic development and diversification toward new lines of business and clean energy are crucial. Phasing out of fossil fuels doesn’t automatically lead to a booming business in clean energy.
“It’s easy for people sitting in comfortable offices in downtown Toronto to say everything will be fine,” says McGowan. “But for the workers whose jobs are being lost, this is about their livelihood, and about their families, and about their dignity.”
That’s an attitude shared by those on the front lines of transition, no matter where they place themselves on the political spectrum.
Conservative MP Dane Lloyd from Sturgeon River-Parkland puts it this way: “We just want to work.”