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Election 2019

Imagining Northern BC Without Oil and Gas

Tyee readers asked us to report on how to transition to a green economy without lost jobs. Here are some answers for one region.

Amanda Follett Hosgood 10 Oct

Amanda Follett Hosgood lives and writes amidst the stunning mountains and rivers of Wet’suwet’en territory. Find her on Twitter @amandajfollett.

Last month’s massive marches to demand action on climate change showed the issue has become central to this election campaign.

But when we asked Tyee readers to guide our election coverage, they wanted to know how the parties would transition to a green economy without causing mass unemployment and upheaval.

It’s a critical question, especially for British Columbia’s north. As one of the fastest-warming regions in the country, it’s already feeling the impact of the climate crisis.

And with its reliance on resource industries — especially oil and gas development in the northeast, pipelines that carry products to the coast, and coming liquefied natural gas plants — it would be most dramatically affected by a transition away from fossil fuels.

That’s not the only impact. Traditional industries like fisheries and forestry are currently struggling and face an uncertain future, in part due to a warming climate.

What will the transition mean for the north?

The shift to a low-carbon economy has traditionally been touted as a choice between jobs and environment. But there’s a growing awareness that the outlook might not be so bleak. Exciting opportunities exist, not only in a post-carbon world, but in the journey to get there.

In August, Forbes touted the shift as “the single biggest business opportunity in human history.”

Experts interviewed by The Tyee about the transition to a post-carbon economy tended to make three points: It’s possible. It likely won’t be comfortable. And it’s going to take a lot of political will.

Marc Lee, senior economist with the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, says how easily we transition depends on how quickly we begin to move quickly to slash emissions.

“If you’re trying to get to zero next year, it’s going to be disruptive,” he says. “If you have two to three decades as the period to manage that transition, then it shouldn’t be a problem.” A 30-year transition — with steady progress during that period — puts us in line with current predictions for avoiding catastrophic climate change, he added.

Christopher Flury is a Fort St. John-based engineer and president of the local chamber of commerce. His income is entirely based on the natural gas industry.

“It’s a major portion of our GDP,” he says, estimating that up to 75 per cent of the local economy relies directly or indirectly on oil and gas.

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A worker at a natural gas well near Fort Nelson, BC. The province has 4,000 direct jobs in oil and gas extraction, almost all in the northeast. Photo by Larry McDougal, the Canadian Press.

The region is seeing an increase in renewable energy projects, with eight wind projects currently proposed, he notes.

“I think a good mix between oil and gas and renewables is how things are going to transition in northeast B.C.,” he says. “If we transition away and completely shut down the industry, I’d say there are over 350 operators just in Fort St. John that would lose their jobs.”

B.C. has 4,000 direct jobs in oil and gas extraction, almost all in the northeast. In addition, last year there were 39,000 oil and gas jobs in engineering and infrastructure building.

Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, represents many of those workers.

Western regional director Gavin McGarrigle says the union is promoting a “just transition” for workers affected by potential job losses in the oil and gas sector.

Governments need to create a realistic plan for moving away from fossil fuels that ensures workers not only have replacement jobs, but ones that come with pensions, benefits and long-term stability.

The renewable energy industry hasn’t delivered those kinds of jobs so far, he said. And without buy-in from workers, he says, discussions and politics become increasingly polarized and transition progress will be slowed.

“The reality is, if you don’t put workers front and foremost in the conversation, then you end up with people that actually take you backward,” McGarrigle says. “Where the conversation screeches to a stop is when you give them tokenism and platitudes about green jobs and renewable energy, and really when you scratch the surface there’s nothing there.

“We’re calling for a whole-of-government approach, where they’re sitting down with business, with labour, planning out where the economy is going, where the opportunities [are], who can we get retrained, how we [can] make sure these jobs are not just replacing jobs with pensions and benefits with non-union, precarious work,” he says.

“No way should workers in a particular sector have to bear the brunt of something that was caused by the combined actions of society and a particular corporation. It was a societal problem that got us here, and it’s got to be a societal response to get us out.”

Renewing traditional economies

In many ways, northern B.C.’s economy after fossil fuels could look a lot like its past. Smaller, community-oriented initiatives that represent local culture, values and ecosystems would replace pipelines and fracking.

Communities and individuals in the north are already beginning to envision what that might look like. Most projects are small and preliminary but are seen as scalable.

Many advocates of a transition say the first step should be to look for the low-hanging fruit — the sectors that could be ramped up quickly to provide opportunities that match the skills of displaced workers.

Remediation tends to top their list, both related to the oil and gas industry and in restoring forests ravaged by wildfires, industry and infestations.

Shannon McPhail, executive director of Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition, points out that an investment in land restoration would not only generate jobs, but could also support declining salmon stocks and lead to more sustainable forestry practices.

“When salmon numbers are in decline the way they are right now, we need to do everything we can to support them,” she says.

Skeena Watershed launched its Skeena Energy Solutions project in 2013 in response to proposed oil and gas pipelines for the region.

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A ‘solar demonstration site’ in Hazelton, BC, a project of Skeena Energy Solutions, which encourages alternative and sustainable economic development for northern BC. Photo by Shannon McPhail.

Instead of just saying no to the developments and jobs, the organization set out to promote alternative economic development that would “sustain northern cultures, build local economies and protect the watersheds.” Projects focus on renewable energy, alternative heating methods and small-scale agriculture.

Most recently, it announced an organic agriculture project.

The project puts farmed chickens at the centre of an ecosystem that includes spin-off industries like manure and berry production. It estimates that a farmer could work nine months of the year to produce 4,500 chickens on roughly two acres and have revenue of $80,000 from the meat and $250,000 from eggs. A berry and hazelnut canopy would provide both protection for the birds, and additional income for the farmer and the foraging chickens would help with land restoration.

But the project also illustrates the scale of the challenge in replacing energy industry jobs. Skeena Energy Solutions estimates eight to 12 plots would be sufficient to meet demand for poultry in the region.

While many projects harken back to the region’s roots, they also take some forward thinking.

Natasha Kuperman’s work in real estate investment in resource communities originally brought her to northern B.C. Now she’s applying her project management skills to forest regeneration projects.

“How can northern B.C. transition to a low-carbon economy? First is to stand up and say, ‘We need to fundamentally do things differently,’” says Kuperman.

“I think a little bit of looking back into the history, to when settlers moved to the region in the 1910s and how they created a good livelihood, is productive, and definitively looking way further back to the way Indigenous people were stewards of the land is also extremely productive.”

In May, Kuperman launched a project to regenerate landscapes altered by fires and other natural disturbances through seed collection and distribution in Hazelton.

The project is a long-term investment in carbon sequestration, with financial returns coming from the international carbon-removal marketplace. The restored landscapes would capture carbon as trees and brush grew; people looking to buy carbon offsets would pay the business.

In the short term, it would employ local students, Indigenous people and displaced forestry workers in seed collecting and cataloguing, and then the distribution of nutrient-rich seed pods.

“People need to start thinking about what’s stored below ground, and that our marshes and bogs and fens are our single-greatest store of carbon,” Kuperman says. “When they start thinking about that, and they start thinking, ‘I want a job ensuring that our peat lands don’t drain and set on fire,’ then we can assert the value of our landscape to international carbon-removal markets.”

Kuperman says it’s too soon to predict the number of jobs or level of pay — critical questions for Unifor’s McGarrigle.

But she hopes it will eventually be “at the scale capable of mitigating and restoring after the catastrophic forest fires that we’re experiencing.” That would be a massive undertaking. In 2018, fires burned more than 13,000 square kilometres.

Caitlyn Vernon, campaigns director with the Sierra Club, says the transition shouldn’t just be about jobs, seeing it as “an opportunity to have more community control and community say over how we want to be living and working together and what those jobs look like.”

The Sierra Club has been working in partnership with a coalition of environmental and labour groups to create Green Jobs BC. The coalition seeks to create “good green jobs that are socially equitable, ecologically responsible and result in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Its 2018 report suggests increased energy efficiency in the building sector — funded through tax incentives, government investment, low-interest loans and grants — could have the highest potential for green job growth in B.C.

Intensive upgrades on 100,000 homes annually could employ up to 30,000 people a year, it says.

A new way forward for forestry

Non-renewable industries like mining and oil and gas employ five to 10 per cent of northern B.C.’s population, higher in the northeast and falling as you move toward the coast.

Although the forest industry has hit tough times, until recently it employed more than 16 per cent of the population in the province’s central north.

The number of jobs has been falling but revamping the sector that drove B.C.’s economy for a century to include remediation and value-added processing could help bridge the economy into a post-carbon era.

But only if the industry adopts innovative approaches and new products, says Guido Wimmers, associate professor of engineering at the University of Northern British Columbia.

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UNBC associate professor of engineering Guido Wimmers sees big employment opportunity in construction retrofitting. Photo courtesy of the University of Northern British Columbia.

The opportunities are there. The provincial government’s Step Code is aimed at encouraging increasingly energy efficient buildings as part of the climate strategy. The code gives municipalities the power to set standards or offer incentives to encourage energy efficiency. The goal is that by 2032, all new buildings will be carbon neutral.

Wimmers says it’s a great opportunity for the forest sector. The drive to greater energy efficiency will lead builders to rely on prefabricated building components, ensuring consistency, he says.

That could mean job losses for the people who used to frame up houses.

But manufacturing the components offers secure jobs. And the people who used to build houses could transition to retrofitting projects, increasing energy efficiency in existing buildings. Especially if carbon taxes or incentives were part of a climate plan.

The components of the new prefab, high-efficient housing could be manufactured in the north. And they could be fabricated from lower-grade wood products traditionally considered waste.

He points to wood-fibre thermal insulation as a product that’s popular in Europe but non-existent in North America.

In addition, producing manufactured wood products requires less energy than concrete or steel, he notes.

“We have so much wood fibre out there, so we can produce such a wide range of products that could replace plastics and concrete in the larger scale,” Wimmers says. He adds that B.C. is a net importer of engineered wood products.

“There are five or six companies across the province which produce engineered products, but that’s very little compared to other countries. So that is a potential creator for jobs, because we need those engineered products for prefabrication.”

The cost for more efficient construction doesn’t necessarily fall back on homebuilders, either: Wimmers estimates the additional investment of a high-efficiency home at five per cent. On the average home, that would increase mortgage payments by about $200 a month.

“But at the same time, you’re reducing your monthly cost of ownership significantly, because your heating bills and other maintenance costs are now drastically reduced,” he says.

Retraining an emerging workforce will also be integral in the transition to a new economy, and UNBC’s Master of Engineering in Integrated Wood Design program, now in its fourth year, has seen success in placing graduates in an evolving construction industry.

“All of them have had at least one job offer while they’re still students, and all of the students got a job after they finished very quickly. At least weekly, we get contacted by industry, by companies, who want to get access to our students. They’re in desperate need of those kind of skillsets,” Wimmers says.

The LNG question

One industry that deeply divides the north is liquefied natural gas. LNG Canada’s controversial Coastal GasLink pipeline being constructed between Dawson Creek and Kitimat has been opposed by some Indigenous communities in its path.

LNG Canada has received federal and provincial subsidies — tax breaks worth more than $100 million a year from the province and $275 million in infrastructure funding from the federal government for the project. Critics note that money could fund thousands of green jobs.

Kitimat Mayor Philip Germuth argues the “LNG Canada project would be the lowest carbon-intensity, major LNG facility on Earth.” It will bring 5,000 construction jobs and 500 permanent jobs, he adds.

“We would all love to be on tidal power, wind power, solar power, hydroelectric, but realistically, on a global scale, we’re not there yet and we’re decades away.”

But Germuth also says if renewable energy projects were planned for Kitimat, the municipality would welcome the investment.

“If the government, be it federal or provincial, is willing to assist those industries, we’re right in there,” he says.

However, the CCPA’s Lee argues the industry doesn’t fit into the transition to a low- or no-carbon economy.

“The energy benefit from LNG in terms of emissions is very small and ranging all the way up to as bad or worse than coal,” Lee says. “You still need to make that next big leap, that tectonic shift, to something that’s 100-per-cent renewable. We should just be leapfrogging right to renewables at every opportunity and not indulging these fantasies like LNG.”

“If we were to say, as a society, we’re going to take one cent out of every dollar of income, one per cent of GDP, and we’re going to invest that in various ways across the economy to build the economy we need, to develop that infrastructure, to remediate old sites, to provide the training programs for workers, you would have a lot of money available to alleviate any of the distresses that might come along with the transition,” he says.

“The key thing is that you need a positive agenda of investments that create new jobs in order to be able to have an agenda that is steadily reducing existing jobs.”  [Tyee]

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