Amidst falling prices and rising emissions, some Albertans see opportunity

In the Appalachian region of the United States, where collapsing demand for coal has devastated local economies, a federal program is helping retrain workers and boost new business ventures.

Alberta’s new Climate Leadership Plan mentions similar transition support for coal workers, but as low oil prices drag on, some Albertans say extending this support to oilsands workers could benefit both the climate and the economy.

The programs in Appalachia build on long-standing efforts to attract or develop new businesses and industries in the region – a project that has become much more urgent as the U.S. electrical generation moves away from coal.

Earl Gohl, federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, says people recognized that “the changes in the coal industry weren’t just cyclical or regulatory, but in fact they were market driven.”

The response to those changes has been wide ranging, aimed at not only retraining workers and creating jobs, but also meeting the particular needs of coal communities.

Some of those projects have been driven by grassroots efforts.

For example, a community health centre is bringing services to people who have gone without, and a construction company is training and employing young workers to redevelop the abandoned buildings in the region.

Other initiatives started with leaders looking for ways to work together. A 2011 report by the Pembina Institute says home heating produces about nine per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in Calgary. Programs to retrofit buildings could reduce emissions and create jobs. Photo by Laura Stewart

In Kentucky, Democratic Governor Steve Beshear and Republican Congressman Hal Rogers invited people to a conference – now an ongoing program – called Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR).

“But when they did that,” Gohl says, “1,500 people showed up to go to work. On a snowy day in Pikeville, Kentucky.”

Much of the new funding comes from the POWER Initiative, part of President Obama’s climate initiative.

Gohl says this funding recognizes “clean air rules … are going to have a lot of very important benefits for the nation, but there are also costs that are in localities.”

Like the U.S. initiatives, Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan (announced by the NDP government in November) targets coal-fired generation as an area to reduce emissions, and offers transition support to help workers who will be affected.

Coal workers are the only group of workers specifically named in the initial announcement.

Yet the plan will affect the oil industry as well – especially in the oilsands, where it imposes a cap on annual emissions.

This comes during a period of low oil prices, in which oil companies have already laid off thousands of workers and put major oilsands construction projects on hold.

Such swings in the industry are familiar, but the new limit on oilsands expansion, coupled with uncertainties about the future global energy policies, raises doubts about whether those jobs will come back.

Michal Moore, an energy economist at the University of Calgary, says “rather than see the workforce just ebb away, and go somewhere else, go back to Newfoundland or out to Ontario or something,” the government should look for ways to create new jobs that could take advantage of these workers’ skills.

He mentions several potential new industries that could be supported, including plastics, fertilizer and data storage (taking advantage of the smaller need for cooling in our climate).

But perhaps help for oilsands workers is right there in the plan after all?

Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan calls for 30 per cent of the province’s electricity to come from renewables by 2030. These wind turbines were seen near Pincher Creek in 2007. Photo courtesy of Grant GilchristA carbon price will be used to move the economy away from fossil fuels, but it also brings in revenue, and the NDP plans to invest this in renewable energy and energy efficiency, to further reduce emissions – and also create jobs.

Godo Stoyke, president of the Edmonton-based energy efficiency design company Carbon Busters, says Alberta could reduce emissions by 17.4 megatonnes, from a current total of 267 megatonnes, just by making buildings across the province more efficient.

Existing buildings can be retrofitted with improved windows, insulation and equipment to use less energy for heating, cooling and lighting.

Stoyke helped the Alberta Green Economy Network develop a submission to the province’s Climate Change Advisory Panel.

He says their scenarios indicate “if you take about one third of the expected carbon tax and invest it into efficiency retrofits, that would create approximately 46,000 green jobs in Alberta.”

He also says there are enough retrofits needed, that the work could last through 2050.

Some of these would be office jobs, helping to balance similar jobs being lost in the oil industry. But Stoyke says even for the physical work of the retrofits, trades from the oilfield may be “fairly readily transferrable.”

Some oil workers have already made the switch to green enterprises.

Matt Simard, a former oilfield electrician, is now co-owner of SolBird Energy and consults on building designs and retrofits. He says he was looking for a way to run his own business, and the NAIT alternative energy training program allowed him to combine this desire with his interest in renewables.

Simard says many electricians he knows are interested in making the same switch, but the fledgling industry needs some help to make its projects more cost-effective for customers.

“All it really takes is just a little bit, to drop that payback from 10 to 12 years to like, five to seven years, and people will be on board right away.”

Thumbnail courtesy of Grant Gilchrist. 

lstewart@cjournal.ca

The editor responsible for this article is Zoe Choy and can be contacted at zchoy@cjournal.ca