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Alberta Coal Phaseout Shows Need for ‘Deliberate, Coordinated’ Transition

Grassy Mountain Coal MineKeith McClary/Mikimedia Commons

Supported by Rachel Notley’s provincial government, and at least partially imperiled by Jason Kenney’s, Alberta’s plan to phase out coal by 2030 offers critical lessons on how best to support the transition to the green economy, according to a new report from the University of Alberta’s Parkland Institute.

“Deliberate and coordinated” action on the part of all public and private stakeholders with an embedded understanding of local conditions will be critical to prevent those most dependent on fossil fuel extraction from shouldering “a disproportionate share of the challenges of the energy transition,” Parkland concludes [1].

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“The transition programs implemented as part of Alberta’s coal phaseout provide an important real-world example for what has been a largely theoretical discussion about how best to transition to a low-carbon economy without sacrificing workers and communities,” said lead author Ian Hussey.

Announced by Notley’s government in 2015, the accelerated coal phaseout will involve converting 14 of the province’s 18 coal-fired power plants to gas by 2029—a process which will have the collateral effect of “an estimated 2,890 layoffs in coal mining and processing and power plant jobs,” most of them by 2023, the report states. But if Alberta followed through on Notley’s plans for coal-to-gas conversions and a series of  renewable energy and energy efficiency projects, a “roughly comparable” number of annual full-time equivalent jobs should materialize in their stead.

To try to ensure that Alberta’s transition away from coal would be a just one, the previous government introduced support programs that Hussey judges as “far from perfect,” but still critical blueprints to study in the coming decades, “as the world makes the shift away from fossil fuels”. A centerpiece of the plan, a C$40-million transition fund that went into operation in January 2018, was designed to deliver “support for re-employment or alternative employment, income and benefit support, pension bridging and early retirement assistance, and retraining and educational programs”.

Past work on just transition theory also calls for public investments in local infrastructure projects, to create jobs for former fossil workers  in the initial phase of transition. So in January 2019, the Notley government announced two highway construction projects in Parkland County, the region projected to suffer most from the loss of coal industry jobs. The two roads, valued at $155 to $195 million, were expected to support 800 direct and indirect jobs.

Two months earlier, the NDP government announced “$200 million over the next 20 years for the Community Generation Program to support small-scale, locally-generated electricity projects,” with up to a quarter of the total dedicated to communities on the front lines of the coal phaseout, Parkland reports. That initiative reflected the understanding that renewable energy and energy efficiency are “labour-intensive and local”, making them a priority in the transition away from fossil fuels.

But Kenney’s United Conservative Party government cancelled the Community Generation Program in May, and its 2019 budget cut back on capital spending for municipalities and provincial public services. The report says those decisions will reduce the odds of a just transition for Alberta’s coal workers, since strong public services are an essential part of a diverse and labour-intensive low-carbon economy.

The Parkland Institute adds that Kenney’s cuts to municipalities will fall particularly heavily on places like Parkland County, whose 2019 budget “included a 3.75% cut to municipal operations because of reduced business property tax revenue related to the coal phaseout”.

The report adds that neither the provincial nor the federal government has taken onboard another fundamental requirement for a just transition: “a comprehensive green industrial strategy that would help absorb considerable numbers of laid-off coal power workers into renewable energy and other low-carbon sectors.”

On the whole, “it seems likely that Alberta municipalities and First Nations affected by the coal phaseout will need further support from the provincial and federal governments as the transition to gas-fired and renewable energy continues in the coming years,” the report concludes. “After all, for decades these communities have relied heavily on coal power plants and their associated mines as substantial sources of property tax revenue and family-sustaining jobs.”

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