Labour, Climate Change and Alberta’s Oil Sands

In the Belly of the Beast

In December 2006, speaking about the development of Alberta's oil sands, Alberta's new premier Ed Stelmach told the Edmonton Journal, "There's no such thing as touching the brake. The economy, growth - that will sort itself out. We just want to make sure that we're globally competitive." Two months later, in February 2007, environmentalist David Suzuki told labour leaders who had gathered in Edmonton to discuss labour's response to climate change, "Right now, if you look at Fort McMurray, it's an economic, social and an ecological disaster zone."

These two short quotes tell Canadians all we need to know about Alberta and climate change. Well, maybe not everything, but enough to understand what underlies Alberta's recalcitrance on environmental issues.

With 10 per cent of the population, Alberta accounts for almost 40 per cent of Canada's greenhouse gas emissions, according to Environment Canada. Alberta politicians have been the most vocal opponents of the Kyoto Protocol and of firm emissions targets. In fact, Alberta's so-called made-in-Alberta climate change action plan will allow emissions to increase by 33 per cent above Kyoto levels by 2020.

Why the heel dragging? The answer lies in the quotes above. At the heart of Alberta's environmental dilemma lays the riches of the oil sands in northern Alberta. Alberta's economy is growing faster than any economy in Canada has grown since the Second World War, and it is due entirely to the aggressive expansion of oil sands extraction. Bitumen production (a tarlike mixture of hydrocarbons) is expected to triple to three million barrels a day by 2025.

Oil around Fort McMurray is found in tarry deposits of sand that must be mined in huge open pit mines. The sand is then processed through an energy- and water-intensive system, which creates a variety of environmental problems, including contaminated soil and air, lost water, and greenhouse gas emissions. At this point the heavy crude is shipped to refineries in Alberta and the U.S.


The oil companies leading the charge in Fort McMurray are doing more than developing oil sands; they are also developing a lot of clout in political circles. They have enough influence to make sure that no Conservative politician whispers a word about slowing down the pace of development, or dealing with the environmental consequences the development creates. Premier Stelmach has darkly proclaimed "dire economic consequences" if anyone tries to put a cap on the industry's gassy emissions.

However, as David Suzuki has observed, the price Albertans are paying for the boom is high: huge increases in cost of living, housing shortages, straining public services. And the price to the environment is even higher. A recent study by the Pembina Institute, an Alberta-based environmental think tank, reported that oil sands development is "the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions growth in Canada," and is expected to contribute almost half of Canada's emissions growth in the next few years.

So, Alberta leads the nation in being a large part of the climate change problem, and its politicians offer nothing but hot air to avoid upsetting powerful economic interests. This is hardly news. The more interesting question is, how will labour find its own path towards environmental stewardship when living and working in the belly of the beast that is the oil sands?

Unions and workers face a particular form of the Alberta dilemma. There is no question that union members, especially in the construction and energy sector, benefit a great deal from the current boom. Jobs are plentiful and wages are creeping up, although not as fast as corporate profits, and workers have the bargaining power to demand better working conditions.

On the surface there appears to be a conflict for labour: advocating for strict environmental controls could put the jobs at risk. How does labour balance the immediate benefits to workers and their families with an eye to long-term consequences for people and the planet as a whole?


The labour movement has been very vocal about talking about the dark side of the boom, at least in terms of social issues such as public services, the cost of living, wages, and affordable housing. However, on environmental issues there is less clarity and a degree of silence.

A number of local building trades unions, whose members are most directly involved in the oil sands development, have ignored the issue, hoping it will go away. For them, the risk of having comments misinterpreted as advocating job reduction is too great. Many national unions have developed Canada-wide policies, but how these policies will be put into practice in Alberta remains unclear. The Alberta Federation of Labour took a clear stand in favour of Kyoto but had, until recently, not fleshed out its position.

The reality is that grappling with climate change has not been a large priority for Alberta's labour movement. However, that may be changing.

Before we can talk about where the labour movement is heading on the issue, we need to understand why it has been struggling to find its voice on climate change.


There are three reasons why tackling climate change has not been on the radar of most unions in Alberta. The first reason is simply that climate change can't be solved at the bargaining table. Proposals for lowering emissions at a specific workplace are not easy to put on the table since employers put up great resistance to this idea, considering it expensive, and, as well, such proposals are outside the scope of a collective agreement. This is particularly true in the oil sands, where solutions require decisions about which, and when, projects are approved. This is about politics, not bargaining.

This leads to the second reason: unions in Alberta struggle for political clout. In a province with staunch right-wing governments and a super-sized energy industry, it is difficult for labour to insert a worker perspective into the debate. Realities such as Canada's lowest unionization rate, poor labour laws, and a mostly non-union energy sector, make matters more difficult.

Third, unions are not immune to the problem that plagues all Canadians. Until very recently, climate change just wasn't on the radar of average Canadians. Despite its very real and very dire consequences, the crisis seemed too remote and too far in the future to draw people's attention. And this applied to the labour movement as well. But there are signs in Alberta of a shift in the mindsets of labour activists.


The first is that workers are seeing through the self-interested hogwash that is the Alberta government position on the issue. There are plenty of opportunities to slow down the pace of development, more rigorously regulate oil sands production, and address the more egregious environmental consequences without significantly affecting Alberta's economy. Researchers have proposed a series of measures that could make the oil sands carbon neutral in 20 years, and, more importantly, could shift the Alberta economy to renewable energy sources. This research has not gone unnoticed by the labour movement.

Unions in Alberta are turning their attention to climate change. And significantly, when the approximately 25 labour leaders met with David Suzuki in Edmonton in February to discuss labour's role, the meeting focussed on practical solutions rather than any debate about the reality of climate change.

The concept of "just transition" is a useful tool in helping unions and workers - particularly those involved in energy extraction - to become allies in the struggle for a sustainable future. Economic analyses have demonstrated that the creation of sustainable energy sources, and infrastructure retrofitting (for example, making buildings more energy efficient), are net job winners, but there will be losses in some sectors. A just transition program that helps shift workers into new sectors can prevent some of the save-my-job resistance that is natural to a worker facing unemployment.


The Alberta Federation of Labour has drafted a comprehensive climate change policy paper, making it the first provincial labour federation with a detailed action plan for meeting the climate change challenge. The paper sets out a political agenda that the AFL will champion, as well as a commitment to make its own operations more sustainable.

The recommendations call for a firm commitment to 80 per cent reductions in emissions (from 1990 levels) by 2050, and specific targets for industries - with penalties for industries that fail to reach targets. They call for significant investments in public transit, retrofitting and other infrastructure projects. And, importantly for Alberta, the paper calls for a slowdown in oil sands production, an end to subsidies for the energy industry, and new regulations to make the oil sands less environmentally damaging.

A few meetings and a policy paper do not fix the problem, but they go a long way in allowing workers and unions in Alberta to stake a new territory in the climate change debate - one that escapes the false jobs-vs.-environment dichotomy and embraces the need for rapid change with a renewed focus on the welfare of workers and the environment.

Not bad for the land of dinosaurs.


For more information about Alberta's oil sands and climate change, read "Carbon Neutral 2020: A Leadership opportunity in Canada's Oil Sands," which is posted on the Pembina Institute's website. Also, visit the David Suzuki Foundation's website and read the publication called "All Over the Map: 2006 Status Report of Provincial Climate Change Plans."

Jason Foster is the Alberta Federation of Labour's Director of Policy Analysis.