20210812 IRON + EARTH DA SILVA

One way to ensure Canada reaches net-zero? Spend $10 billion to retrain oil and gas workers

Iron & Earth, an advocacy group for oil and gas workers, says massive federal investments are needed over next decade to help companies and workers transition to an economy in line with Canada’s net-zero carbon pollution targets

When Luisa Da Silva began her career as a geoscientist 14 years ago, she had no idea that she’d someday move from the oil and gas sector to advocating for fossil fuel workers to shift into renewable energy careers. Her journey reflects one of the core tenets of a movement that is promoting a responsible transition for oil and gas industry workers. 

“What it is that [we] were doing 10 years ago, or five years ago, or 15 years ago, doesn’t have to be what [we’re] doing tomorrow.”

Da Silva worked first in oil and gas, then in the mining and exploration industry, then in education and at an Ontario conservancy. 

It was the culmination of this journey that led her to become executive director of Iron & Earth — a non-profit organization that says it started in 2016 “around the lunchroom tables of the Canadian oilsands.”

She says oil and gas workers wanted a safe place to discuss their concerns about the decline of the fossil fuel industry, job security and the climate crisis — without putting their careers in jeopardy for engaging in difficult conversations. This is where Iron & Earth came in. The organization not only advocates and lobbies to promote a smart transition for fossil fuel workers, but it also provides training and guidance to help those eager to make the jump into renewables. 

“Iron & Earth really sits at the middle of the oil and gas industry and being concerned about climate change — we bring everybody to the table to have the discussion together,” Da Silva explains. 

In early August, Iron & Earth published its Prosperous Transition Plan, which consulted oil and gas workers on what a responsible transition should look like, and detailed the resulting recommendations for the federal government.

Da Silva also says the federal government has taken some positive steps by starting consultations on a proposed Just Transition Act, but notes it’s happening two years after a promise to introduce this legislation. She says she hopes the consultations lead to concrete action and were not just introduced as a pre-election exercise.

Da Silva sat down with The Narwhal to discuss what the federal government and fossil fuel industry need to do to facilitate a responsible transition. The following is a transcript of that conversation, edited for style and brevity.

Luisa Da Silva, executive director of Iron and Earth, in a community garden in Toronto. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

What kinds of fears and concerns are oil and gas workers facing right now, in terms of the climate crisis and the fossil fuel industry? 

Fossil fuel workers are no different from anyone else: they just want to take care of the family, of the community, to put food on the table, a roof over their head, and they want to be proud of the work that they do.

[They] are concerned about having their wages reduced, losing their job, having their hours reduced. Be it from climate change, economic or other external factors, they can see the writing on the wall — the transition to net-zero is happening. [But] a lot of these people, they don’t know what else to do. Their biggest concern is that they’re going to get left behind. And they’re concerned about how they’re leaving the world.

How can the idea of ‘just transition’ address these concerns? 

In order to implement the net-zero economy, there’s already this enormous skilled workforce. We know that we can move into this transition that will provide stable jobs, reliable jobs, well-paid jobs, that won’t be subject to boom-and-bust cycles. Fossil fuel industry [workers] and Indigenous workers’ skills are needed in the net-zero economy.

[But] they need to have upskilling, so that they can move into the net-zero economy. They face economic barriers — it’s quite expensive to upskill to go into a new career. It comes down to being out of pocket: needing to invest money into retraining, and needing to invest time. Depending on where they’re at in their career, they might not be able to afford that. That’s part of why having a just transition is so very important. 

How do the interests of oil and gas workers looking to upskill relate to the interests of oil and gas companies themselves?

I do think that these oil and gas companies also want to see themselves thrive through a just transition. They want to come out the other side, knowing that they still have a place in the Canadian economy. And really what that speaks to is a refocusing and repositioning of these enterprises.

What it boils down to is, there are things that the oil and gas companies can pivot towards, that are less polluting, that are better for the environment, they still will have a place in the economy. Fundamentally, what exists currently there doesn’t have to be completely stripped away and overhauled. The key is that [renewable energy infrastructure] can be built upon what already exists. 

But the reality is, businesses will take their cue from what the federal government does. So the government needs to provide the funding for people to be able to go through training and upskill, so that Canada can move into the new economy, but it is on the businesses to ensure that they have jobs in net-zero technologies for these workers.

What should the federal government be doing to facilitate a responsible transition? 

First and foremost, we believe that the workforce needs to be upskilled. We believe it’s going to be about $10,000 per person to upskill the workforce. So we’re looking at about a cost of $10 billion over 10 years in order to upskill all the workers that are going to be needed in the net-zero economy.

In terms of retooling and upgrading facilities: if we retool and upgrade about 10,000 enterprises across Canada, across 10 years — so we’re pushing to 2030, really — that’s a federal investment of about $20 billion. [For example,] installing solar panels on existing infrastructure: in Alberta, there are around 178,000 abandoned or inactive drill wells, which occupies about 160,000 hectares of land. And so the idea behind [our project] RenuWell is let’s use this disturbed land to be putting these solar panels on to generate electricity. Retooling and repurposing is very much about looking at something that has been used for years or decades from a different perspective: how is it that it can be, now, manufacturing something else? 

Tax offsets and green strings — zero-emitting technologies, negative-emitting technologies that you’re investing into, bringing these technologies into your organization effectively — [are] about a $10 billion investment. And then finally, the nature-based solutions: these are projects that can address social challenges, and also build resilience into the economy. These projects range from forest protection to restoration initiatives, even into incorporating natural ecosystems into industrial operations. We think that that will be a cost of $22 billion to the country. 

Indigenous-led nature-based solutions projects, if done correctly, provide an opportunity to both advance reconciliation with Indigenous nations, and create and implement carbon-neutral or carbon-negative climate solutions. And many Indigenous nations in Canada are already interested in advancing nature-based solutions in their traditional territories. It is paramount that [these] projects on Indigenous land have the consent of and leadership from the people of those communities. 

What kind of obstacles have you faced already, or do you foresee, in trying to facilitate this adoption of a responsible transition? 

[With RenuWell,] we’re racing against time to keep that infrastructure there in terms of roads, and electricity running to the site to power the installation. We can’t be having red tape to cut through just to be able to do what we need to move towards net-zero and reach our climate targets. It has to be simpler, it has to come from the federal government.

We don’t really have the luxury of waiting to put a just transition into place, to pivot towards net-zero. Many of these steps can be achieved by 2030. The sooner we start putting these into place, the more widely accepted it will become, the more time businesses will have to innovate and create their own solutions that fall into these categories. And then effects will snowball and we’ll be able to reach 2050 in the net-zero economy.

Luisa Da Silva, executive director of Iron & Earth, started her career as a geoscientist in the oil and gas sector 14 years ago. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

On July 20 this year, the federal government announced an ‘engagement process’ to consult on how best to facilitate a just transition for workers. What are your thoughts on this announcement and process? 

I think the Canadian government is taking the right steps and using the right language in terms of moving the process of just transition along towards becoming a Just Transition Act. What we’re concerned about at Iron & Earth is that an advisory board can be ignored, and that they would just be advisory. 

Any delay in acting will only delay the process. We already see that the Just Transition Act was promised in 2019; we’re in 2021, and we’re starting the consultation. So we’re already two years behind. We really hope that this consultation process will, in the end, have concrete steps and actions towards creating policy, and that it’s not just being done as a pre-election exercise.

What do you think is the best way to pursue serious discussions about transitioning workers in a context of polarization, extreme political rhetoric and partisan attacks?

I believe the best way to have these talks is exactly what Iron & Earth has been doing for over five years — listening to everyone, through polls, surveys, interviews, events and consultations — from the concerns of the workers to the oil and gas companies. It’s the people on the ground who know what the reality is, rather than trying to guess from behind a political curtain. 

Climate change should be a non-partisan issue. The fate of the Canadian energy sector rests on how well we can transition, and the fate of our survival as humans’ rests on how quickly we can react to and enact stops to the runaway climate crisis unfolding before us. It doesn’t matter which side of the political spectrum you sit on — climate change will still be climate change. Political tactics and games will only serve to label and divide people rather than uniting everyone together on what needs to be seen as the greatest threat to human existence. 

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