Getting off coal: report offers solutions for a “just transition” in NB

Written by Abram Lutes on July 5, 2019

Coal storage at the NB Power Belledune Generating Station. Photo by Abram Lutes.

A federal joint task force report seriously addresses how coal energy workers in Canadian communities can transition away from coal in a manner that protects their wages and livelihoods. The federal government has mandated the end of coal energy generation by 2030. The New Brunswick government’s Climate Action Plan published in 2016 also includes phasing out coal from NB Power’s energy mix by 2030. 

The Task Force on a Just Transition for Canadian Coal Power Workers and Communities, chaired by Hassan Yussuff, President of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and Lois Corbett, executive director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick (CCNB), released its final report in February 2019.

The Task Force reviewed research into coal’s place in Canada’s economy and consulted with coal-dependent communities in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

New Brunswick’s NB Power has one remaining coal-fired generating station in Belledune, on Chaleur Bay. Its Coleson Cove generating station previously was powered by coal and the task force visited both communities prior to their report.

The report’s goal is to inform how the Canadian government can successfully meet its commitment to phase out coal-fired electricity by 2030 while ensuring equivalent or better jobs for the workers and supporting communities that need to keep these jobs.

Nearly 50 communities with nearby coal mines or generating stations in Canada together employ about 3,000 to 4,000 workers. In many of these communities, the mine or generating station is the primary employer. Many families are single-income with one worker in a skilled trade in the mine or station’s operations. These jobs are among the few in the communities offering a living wage because of the high density of unionization and demand for skilled labour in this sector. In the case of Belledune, power generation from the coal-fired station also sustains unionized jobs in the Glencore-owned smelter and other industries in the industrial park.

The Task Force report urges federal and provincial governments to have more transparent communication with municipal and union representatives so that communities can take an active role in transitioning away from coal while retaining or increasing the number of well-paying, unionized jobs. The report also recommends creating “transition centres,” modeled on British Columbia’s Community Fisherman Development Centres which Indigenous and workers’ organizations advocated for as part of the BC salmon revitalization strategy. These centres, the report claims, would help communities and workers adapt to changes in employment and labour market demands while ensuring unions and local participants are active agents in the transition.

NB Power says it recognizes the urgency of transitioning away from coal. The utility is exploring a few options, including partnering with private Florida-based company Joi Scientific to explore converting Belledune into a hydrogen-powered plant. That project, valued at $7 million, has been subject to controversy and criticism over its feasibility.

“Our customers have been clear – they want a more renewable future, but they do not want large rate increases to pay for it and this is exactly what we are working to provide for them,” says Shelia Lagace, a public relations representative for the utility. “NB Power understands the complexity of the challenges we face as a utility as we add more renewables while acting to protect the costs our customers face.”

Last year in France, protests crippled the country when the government under President Emmanuel Macron imposed a gas tax and electricity rate increase while cutting taxes for the wealthy. Commentator like James Wilt, writing in Briarpatch, believes that climate policy must also address economic and social justice.

Daniel Tubb, an anthropologist at the University of New Brunswick who studies resource extraction in Colombia and New Brunswick, says that a transition to new energy sources not only presents exciting possibilities for a society but also means policymakers have an immense responsibility to ensure the transition is fair and just.

“If you look at the British empire, for example, coal as an energy source opened up certain possibilities for labour rights and democracy,” says Tubb, “Timothy Mitchell has studied this in depth – the mines, the shipyards, the foundries, these were all places where work was very social and relatively unsupervised and workers could unionize the entire coal supply chain. So, when they went on strike, they had a lot of power.”

Tubb echoes some of the statements of the Task Force report, saying that the transition to sustainable energy must be done in the interests of workers and “open up new, progressive possibilities for our society. I think if a sustainable energy system is localized and public, you could do this.”

The NB Power Belledune station on Chaleur Bay. Photo by Abram Lutes.

Abram Lutes is an environmental action reporter with the RAVEN project summer institute.

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