The Task Force on Just Transition for Canadian Coal Power Workers and Communities is filing its final report today. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Support for climate change action could wane if no help for coal workers: report

OTTAWA — The federal government has to prepare communities that are economically dependent on coal for a future when their products aren’t needed if it wants to maintain public support for climate-change action, says a task force on making that transition work.

The Task Force on Just Transition for Canadian Coal Power Workers and Communities is filing its final report today, with 10 broad recommendations.

Underlying many of them is a warning that not easing the anxieties of workers who will be affected by a planned phaseout of coal-fired generating plants will come with a political, and possibly even environmental, cost.

“Widespread support for continued climate-change action is at risk of eroding if strong just-transition provisions are not embedded in climate-change and labour policy,” the report reads.

The task force wants the policies written into legislation to make them difficult to undo and to provide longer-term certainty for the affected workers and communities.

Canada has ordered that all existing coal plants be closed or converted to natural gas before 2030. It is part of Canada’s plan to reduce emissions to 70 per cent of what they weir in 2005, by 2030. In 2016, the most recent year emissions statistics are available, coal accounted for nine per cent of all Canada’s emissions and 71 per cent of emissions from generating electricity.

The task force, set up by the federal government in 2018, has spent the last 10 months hearing from people in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, the four provinces that still use coal as a source of electricity.

Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress and one of the co-chairs of the task force, said the body’s very existence is proof the government understands it “can’t simply phase out the industry without thinking of the workers and the communities.”

The task force wants funding to research the impact of the coal phase-out, local transition centres to help provide retraining, relocation and social supports, a pension-bridging program to help workers nearing the ends of their careers make it to retirement without hurting their pensions, and eventually a job bank to help match the skills of coal workers with potential new job opportunities.

Yussuff said this is a unique opportunity because the coal industry is being phased out over time. Most often communities get very little, if any, warning that a plant is shutting down, such with as the closures of asbestos mines in Quebec or the almost overnight closure of the Newfoundland cod fishery in 1992, which threw 40,000 fishers out of work.

“All of those were not planned or anticipated,” he said. “This is not going to happen overnight. We’ve still got some time.”

There are 16 coal-fired generating stations left in Canada, and nine mines for the “thermal coal” that feeds them — five in Alberta and two each in Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia. About 42,000 workers are employed directly or indirectly in coal mining, though some of them are in the metallurgical coal industry, which supplies the coal used to make steel.

Yussuff said the jobs that need to be replaced are high-paying ones often with salaries ranging from $60,000 to $100,000 a year.

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