By failing to support coal workers and prepare for a just transition to a low-carbon economy, the federal government is “stealing our futures,” says longtime oil and gas worker Stephen Buhler.

The Alberta resident, who has 13 years of experience working in the industry as a machinist, was not surprised to learn a government audit released earlier this week found Ottawa is falling short on its commitment to support fossil fuel workers in the global shift to a low-carbon economy.

If the federal government continues on its current trajectory, the audit revealed, 50 communities and more than 170,000 fossil fuel workers will be left behind in the energy transition.

“There's nothing more important than the government making sure that a transition happens … there's no future without that kind of work being done,” Buhler told Canada’s National Observer. “If we haven't transitioned workers to a green economy and working in green jobs, there won't be a (livable) planet.”

Despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 2019 promise to create a Just Transition Act, the federal government has been “unprepared and slow off the mark,” environment commissioner Jerry DeMarco told Canada’s National Observer after tabling his audit Tuesday. DeMarco noted that the 2015 Paris Agreement contained language on a just transition. In Canada, the government has specifically talked about transitioning away from industries — like Newfoundland and Labrador’s cod fishery — since 1993, he pointed out.

The audit examined what actions federal departments — including Natural Resources Canada and Employment and Social Development Canada — took between January 2018 and September 2021 to support coal workers and communities through the phaseout of that industry and prepare for a broader transition away from fossil fuels.

It found the federal government has no implementation plan, formal governance structure or monitoring and reporting system to support a just transition.

The audit’s findings rang true to Buhler, who is a community engagement officer for Iron & Earth, an oilpatch worker-led organization trying to ensure a prosperous transition towards global carbon neutrality by 2050.

Stephen Buhler has 13 years of experience working in the oil and gas sector as a machinist. He is the community engagement officer for Iron & Earth and has been involved in grassroots climate justice organizing in Edmonton with Climate Justice Edmonton. Photo by Abdul Malik

“As someone who's worked in oil and gas and tried to find work in green technology and green energy, that doesn't really happen, and there's not really a big desire from this government to actually do anything about it,” he said.

By failing to support coal workers and prepare for a just transition to a low-carbon economy, the federal government is “stealing our futures,” says @StephenPBuhler, a longtime oil and gas worker and community engagement officer for @IronandEarth.

He surmises many fossil fuel workers have little faith in the federal government but thinks their trust could be won with substantial investments to open the door for green job opportunities.

“Justin Trudeau … has the power to actually do something for workers, he just has to do it,” said Buhler.

In a joint statement responding to a series of new reports from DeMarco, including the audit, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said the government “will always have the backs of workers.”

“In the last few months alone, we have invested in projects that will secure or create thousands of jobs, from biomethanization plants in Quebec to the auto sector in Ontario to the home retrofit industry in Manitoba and across the country,” the statement reads, also noting measures announced in the 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan and Budget 2022 “will build on this progress.”

Last year, an Abacus Data poll commissioned by Iron & Earth surveyed 300 fossil fuel workers across Canada from May 24 to June 11. It found a majority of workers surveyed believe “Canada should pivot towards a net-zero emissions economy by 2050 to remain a competitive global economy.”

Ninety per cent of workers surveyed also believe they could transition to at least one type of net-zero technology with 12 months or less of training, according to the poll results.

“Everybody working in oil and gas is extremely skilled … they are very knowledgeable,” said Buhler. He wishes he could tell every oil and gas worker they are capable of working in green industries and that advocating for more green jobs will give both workers and the planet a more secure future.

Luisa Da Silva, executive director of Iron & Earth, said the audit’s findings are damning” and “extremely disappointing.”

While some people like Buhler may not have had high hopes for the government’s promise of a just transition, Da Silva expects others will be angry about the audit’s findings.

Da Silva said despite the findings, she has confidence Employment and Social Development Canada and other ministries are allocating funds and resources that will help make a difference.

Because the audit only covers January 2018 to September 2021, some current initiatives were not included. In their responses to the audit, both Natural Resources Canada and Employment and Social Development Canada pointed to a program that helps workers and employers by providing funding to address the needs of Canada’s workforce and focus on building talent for the clean economy.

However, Da Silva said there also needs to be an overarching, government-led ministry to lead the just transition because in recent years the issue has been “kicked from one place to another place.”

“Right now, it's quite disparate … and perhaps that's why there was no plan,” said Da Silva. Armed with information from the audit and recommendations on how to correct the course, “let's move forward and let's build on what's happening right now,” she added.

“But let's not make this mistake twice … we can’t keep letting people down.”

For Buhler, a just transition is an opportunity to prove the federal government can actually work for people.

He points to the creation of universal health care in Canada as an example of one of “those kinds of big changes that really inspire people.”

“But we really haven't seen that for decades,” he added.

“It is possible to get a better life through government action, and really, it's just through government inaction that everything has gotten so much worse.”

Natasha Bulowski / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer