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Oil sands workers champion shift to renewable energy

By: | April 7, 2016

A Corner Brook man and a few of his co-workers from Alberta are leading a new national initiative to retrain tradespeople working in the hurting fossil fuel industry to help lead Canada’s transition to a low carbon economy.

Iron & Earth was launched March 21, 2016 in Edmonton. (L-R): Boilermaker Joe Bacsu, boilermaker and founder Lliam Hildebrand, and electrician Adam Cormier. Photo by Mychaylo Prystupa.

It began as a conversation around the worktable in the oil sands and has turned into an important national initiative to help workers adjust to the changing landscape in Canada’s energy industry.

In 2014 Adam Cormier, an electrician from Corner Brook who spent a year working in Alberta’s oil sands, and some of his colleagues were discussing the oil industry downturn.

“Why aren’t we investing in the future of energy, which is renewables?” Cormier recalled in a recent interview with The Independent.

And then it occurred to them — their livelihoods didn’t have to be dependent on or dictated by an unstable and unsustainable industry.

“We are boilermakers, we’re welders, we’re iron workers, we’re electricians,” said Cormier. “We have the hard hands-on skills right now to put up windmills, build biogas plants, to install solar panels — and we want that work because a lot of people right now are hurting.”

Recognizing the potential for thousands of fossil fuel industry workers to transfer their skills to the burgeoning renewable energy sector, Cormier and his co-workers decided to get the ball rolling on what they hope will be a large shift of tradespeople to new jobs in renewables, which Cormier calls “the future of energy”.

The’ve named the project Iron & Earth, which they introduced at a press conference in Edmonton on March 21, along with the vision for their first undertaking: to retrain 1,000 out-of-work oil sands workers in Alberta to install solar panels in that province.

Beyond that the group is also inviting fossil fuel industry workers to join their organization and help them determine how to coordinate subsequent projects in other provinces and jurisdictions.

“We will be looking at each of our trades and all across the country develop specific campaigns for each trade geared toward the best renewable options in that region and the best technologies that match with their current skills,” Cormier explained.

Iron & Earth is asking workers to help pay for their retraining, but also for support from governments, which they’re optimistic about in light of the Trudeau Government’s recent budget commitment of $2 billion to establish a Low Carbon Economy Fund and $130 million over five years to, among other things, “create clean jobs” and “support clean technology research and development.”

Crisis and opportunity 

Facing unemployment wasn’t the only impetus for launching Iron & Earth, Cormier said, explaining many workers are “conflicted” about working in an industry that is contributing so significantly to climate change.

“So many of the people that work [in the oil sands] are hunters and fishermen and conservationists, and they love their families — but they’re working there because they love their families,” he explained.

“We’re very grateful for the opportunities the oil sands provided us — they’ve given us an incredible quality of life and provided for our families for many years, so we’re not against the oil sands.”

Last year author, activist and 350.org founder Bill McKibben said the Harper Government’s decision to feature Alberta’s oil sands so prominently in the national economy transformed Canada from a “a force for good in the world” to an “obstructive and dangerous force upon the planet.”

Under Harper Canada repeatedly earned the ‘Fossil of the Year’ award at the United Nations global climate talks.

In December the newly-elected Trudeau Liberals surprised everyone at the Conference of Parties (COP21) in Paris by pledging to work with governments around the world to limit rising temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celcius, which is half a degree below the generally accepted 2 degree global warming limit, beyond which the world would be looking at catastrophic climate change.

But the promise hasn’t been accompanied by adequate policy decisions, critics argue, citing among other things a 2015 University College London study published in the journal Nature that claims 85 percent of Alberta’s oil sands will have remain in the ground if global warming is to be limited to 2 degrees.

In its 2016 budget, despite its election promise to “phase out subsidies to the fossil fuel industry over the medium-term,” the federal government maintained its financial support for the industry in the near future. 

The Nature study also posited all fossil fuels in the Arctic would also have to remain untouched to limit warming to 2 degrees. 

In recent years Newfoundland and Labrador has been positioning itself as a leader in the Arctic oil frontier. But with oil prices still much lower than the province anticipated in recent budgets and an uncertain future for the industry, and in light of Saudi Arabia’s recent warning to high-cost oil producers that it won’t be cutting its lower-cost production anytime soon, its unclear whether Arctic oil development will ever be feasible.

As such, some argue the transition to a low carbon economy may come sooner than anticipated.

Last year dozens of Canadian scholars released a report outlining how Canada can begin its transition to a low carbon economy, arguing that in the short-term the federal government should, among other things, immediately implement a national carbon tax or economy-wide cap and trade program and eliminate subsidies to the fossil fuel industry.

Last month a new study out of Stanford University projected Canada could feasibly move to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 by developing a combination of wind, solar, hydro, wave and geothermal resources.

Cormier said Iron & Earth and Canadian tradesworkers are “in a very unique position to bridge the two traditional sides of the environment vs. the economy. Our message is that that is an old argument that no longer stands because renewables are incredible for the economy [and] they’re incredible for job growth.”

Newfoundland and Labrador’s “absolutely massive” renewable energy potential

The provincial government has repeatedly touted the controversial Muskrat Falls hydro dam as one that can produce “clean, green” energy, claiming it will allow N.L. to achieve 98 percent renewable energy consumption. But the project is failing to live up to its praise. Cost overruns have the dam’s price tag at almost $8 billion, with more costs expected to be incurred before the project is complete. There are also concerns about the dam’s structural integrity, and that it could put people’s lives at risk downstream in the event of a breach. The Inuit of Nunatsiavut are also challenging the government and Crown energy corporation Nalcor over what a Harvard study projects could lead to the contamination of traditional foods in Lake Melville.

The recently-elected provincial Liberals are currently reviewing the project’s feasibility.

During the Environmental Assessment process Nalcor and the government announced Muskrat Falls was the least-cost option and most feasible among all potential renewable energy strategies for the province, a claim many environmental groups and clean energy advocates disputed.

Cormier called Newfoundland and Labrador’s renewable energy potential “absolutely massive,” citing a recent study out of Memorial University that claims the Island could generate 940 megawatts (MW) of energy from small scale hydro developments and another 440 MW of wind energy, which he says would meet roughly 70 percent of the Island’s annual energy needs.

“We have the highest average winds of any province in Canada. We’ve got massive hydro resources. We’ve got tidal resources, we’ve got geothermal resources. And Newfoundland has solar resources,” he continued. 

“People don’t think Newfoundland is viable for solar but it absolutely is. We can generate between 900-1,000 kilowatt hours per kilowatt installed here in Newfoundland, which is pretty good and similar to a lot of Germany; Germany has installed almost 40,000 megawatts of solar now.”

Good for the economy

On Wednesday Bloomberg News reported that global investments in renewable energy are outpacing gas by a long shot, and that renewable energy is quickly becoming a cheaper energy alternative in many jurisdictions: “Clean energy investment broke new records in 2015 and is now seeing twice as much global funding as fossil fuels.”

Cormier said in addition to being a more affordable source of energy, renewables dispersed throughout the province would help diversify the local economy and create employment for thousands of workers.

“A lot of people who could get involved in this would wouldn’t have to fly away to camps to work on megaprojects,” he said. “They could be in their hometowns putting solar panels on rooftops, putting windmills on their hilltops, installing heat pumps, re-insulating houses, installing geothermal and biogas and that sort of thing.

“So a lot of workers like this idea because it’s cleaner workplaces, safer workplaces, and they’re home with their families every night.”

Cormier said Iron & Earth will be encouraging the provincial government “to include renewables in our energy mix.

“We’ve got thousands of skilled workers home from Alberta and other parts of the country who have the hands-on skills to actually install this technology, and we want to put those highly-skilled workers back to work in the renewable energy economy.

 A  lot of workers like this idea because it’s cleaner workplaces, safer workplaces, and they’re home with their families every night. — Adam Cormier

“Canada and Newfoundland and Labrador have the opportunity to lead the world in clean tech,” he added.

Last year former Natural Resources Minister Derrick Dalley announced the framework for the province’s net metering program, which will allow residents and businesses to generate power from small, on-site renewable energy sources and feed excess energy back on to the grid.

Responding to the announcement Newfoundland and Labrador Environmental Industry Association Executive Director Ted Lomond said net metering will allow businesses in Newfoundland and Labrador to “provide their green energy solutions locally,” and that the legislation “removes barriers to competitiveness for companies in comparison to those in other jurisdictions [while supporting] local firms in testing and marketing their products and services internationally where small scale green energy compatibility is expected of them.”

Lomond also recently praised the federal budget, saying the Trudeau Government is “making considerable investments in green technologies and climate change mitigation.”

He said that “in order to capitalize on these opportunities, firms must be alert to the potential, municipalities must be proactive, and the provincial government must be agile in its response and swift in the alignment of policy framework and supports.”

The premiers met with Prime Minister Trudeau in Vancouver last month to discuss how Canada would develop a national strategy to meet its ambitious carbon emission targets. While all parties agreed to the need for carbon-pricing—which most commonly exists in the forms of carbon tax or cap and trade—a consensus has not yet been reached as to what the strategy will look like and what onus it will put on the provinces and territories.

Newfoundland and Labrador has yet to legislate the net metering program or announce how it will address carbon-pricing but will deliver its first budget next week, which could contain the long-awaited plans.

“This is the future of the energy economy and we need to get involved or we’re going to be left behind,” said Cormier. “Newfoundland and Labrador have such amazing renewable energy resources, with our wind and our water, that there’s no reason we shouldn’t become a leader in clean tech and diversify our economy to include renewables. Because as we saw, when we have all our eggs in one basket…that’s bad news. If we start to diversify our economy to include renewables, we’re going to be much better situated to deal with any future shocks in the prices of oil.”

Cormier said as Iron & Earth works on its first project in Alberta it will build its membership in Newfoundland and Labrador, “so anyone reading this who is a skilled worker or knows a skilled worker, please go to www.ironandearth.org, sign our pledge, fill out our survey, send us an email.

“Our main goal in Newfoundland and Labrador is to reach out to our potential members, get people on board, and then start talking to each other and develop a Newfoundland and Labrador-specific campaign that reflects our own unique specific renewable energy resources and our own unique skilled worker base.”

Cormier can be contacted directly at adam@ironandearth.org.

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