by Anna Bettini
A Changing Energy Landscape
Driving along Highway 529, two hours south of Calgary, giant wind turbines tower over the fields of canola. Along the road, several signs indicate the local community opposition to wind energy projects [Picture 1]. As I approach the entrance of village of Carmangay, I notice a large wind turbine blade lying near it [Picture 2]. Not far from it, Mr. Ralph Allen greets me with a warm smile. He is a retired geologist, employed in the oil and gas sector for over 40 years. He agreed to be part of my project as I investigate and report the lived experiences of the energy transition for workers and communities in Alberta. As I introduce myself, Mr. Allen points to the large blade behind us. “Have you seen the turbine? It’s from the wind farm near us,” referring to the Blackspring Ridge Wind Project (in operation since 2014). Considered among the largest renewable energy infrastructures in Western Canada with 166 turbines, the project created over 350 short-term jobs during construction and an additional 20 long-term jobs for operations.
Continuing toward Lomond, millions of solar photovoltaic panels spread over thousands of hectares of land surrounded by farming acreages as part of the Travers Solar Project [Picture 3]. One of the largest solar farms in North America, it will produce 465 megawatts of power and generate more than 500 temporary full-time jobs. The project was still under construction when I began ethnographic fieldwork in June 2022.
An integral part of decarbonization strategies, green infrastructures are developing within rural municipalities across Alberta causing both excitement and concerns among people working and living in the area. Through solar and wind farm developments, the provincial government hopes to create more net-zero job opportunities while rewarding small communities with tax rebates, incentives, and vibrancy funds. For many, these changes encourage a transition towards greener forms of energy and a more sustainable economy. For others, these changes represent steps to a future for which they don’t feel fully prepared.
History Repeating? Energy Transition, Risks of Workers’ Displacement, and Re-training Opportunities
As I talked to local county representatives near solar and wind farms developments, some saw a less optimistic future citing concerns for limited opportunities for workers to re-train and transition into the green energy sector. Interviewing the Vulcan County Reeve and Division 1 Director of the Rural Municipalities Association Jason Schneider, he stressed how the jobs created are often insufficient with meagre wages and limited possibilities of career growth. “There are not a lot of jobs to transition into! Now, during construction [of renewable energy projects], there are a lot of jobs, but … it is a lot of unskilled labor, basically putting together panels […] There aren’t enough jobs requiring people to actually move here.”
Paul McLauchlin, Reeve of Ponoka County and President of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta, notes there is often a misconception that switching from the oil and gas industry to the renewable energy sector is a natural transition which will not lead to issues with unemployment and displaced oil and gas workers. “The problem with the renewable industry is that there are people who have been telling us that there’ll be replacement jobs, and it won’t. Once a solar farm is installed […] it is not a big employability opportunity. It will provide some employment, but … it will not replace the jobs from oil and gas.”
The fear of displacement and major social changes within communities that have been dependent on and shaped by a single industry for decades is not entirely new. As Caranci and Fong report, “the experience of both the U.S. and Canadian manufacturing sectors in the 1990s through to the early-2000s offers a cautionary tale.” (2021:3) An extensive body of literature on deindustrialization and industrial restructuring has documented the economic and social impacts these processes have left on diverse urban realities, which are still very visible in many cases nowadays creating more profound inequalities and often resulting in labour precariousness. Planning is crucial to successfully ensure a just transition to prevent the same pitfalls as in the past.
Recent estimates state that, “50-75% of the [600,000 workers directly or indirectly employed in Alberta’s oil and gas sector, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland and Labrador] are at risk of displacement in the transition through 2050.” (Caranci and Fong 2021:3) In February 2023, the Government of Canada released an interim plan detailing steps necessary to create more sustainable jobs across the country while aiming to ensure a just and equitable transition, especially among oil and gas producing provinces. With this transition, renewables are considered by experts as the sector that can provide new employment opportunities.
To support re-training opportunities, organizations like Iron & Earth aim to empower the fossil fuel industry and Indigenous workers to build and implement climate solutions with a transition into the renewable energy sector in Canada. In conversation with Jodie Hon, innovation and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) manager, she shares the urgency to implement strategies to allow the transition and the necessary re-education. As a chemical engineer who worked briefly in the oil and gas industry, Jodie empathizes with the struggles and barriers facing individuals entering other energy sectors noting that government supports can be quite minimal. As she reiterates, many workers are unaware of how transferable their skills are: “A common obstacle that we hear from people [looking] to upskill or re-skill … is financial […] Another is often obviously emotional. […] Personalized emotional support is often necessary. I think that sometimes there is a barrier around … access to information, [knowing] where job openings are and where projects are happening.”
“Where Could I Go? I Have Been Preparing Myself for What’s Next:” Lived Experiences of Just Transition from Workers.
As I interviewed engineers, geologists, and tradespeople, many shared worries about how unprepared they feel about the energy transition. This stems from a lack of support from the province. These worries are justified considering Alberta’s current provincial government’s views of just transition strategies as unnecessary, publicly stating that a just transition for workers in the oil and natural gas industry should not be a priority.
Frank Yang, having worked in the industry as a university student then full-time since 2015, tells me that he feels discouraged thinking of starting in a new energy sector. He retains some optimism, believing the province won’t leave workers behind. “I am hoping for this transition to be just as they say […] that we will have some sort of government support in terms of getting workers reeducated since we can’t really control anything else.”
Talking to Alex Banks, who has worked for a fracking company for the past eight years, he voices concerns about maintaining the lifestyle he has for him and his family. He asserts that the only way to show some justice for workers would be to create jobs in other sectors where the wages are comparable to employment within oil and gas. Iain Clark shares a similar view. Working as a welder in the oil and gas sector since 2006, Iain fears that the energy transition is moving too rapidly: “It’s never going to be a truly just transition. There is a considerable wage disparity.”
Kelty Latos, experienced geologist and former president of the Canadian Energy Geoscience Association (CEGA), reveals that she has often pondered leaving her job in the oil and gas industry and has started to think about what types of skills she could be able to transfer or what training will be required from her to be ready for an eventual transition to another energy sector. She thanks associations like CEGA for helping create a clear path to follow, but stronger support could come from outside of associations: “I don’t see a lot of governmental assistance, for sure […] We feel left behind.”
Justice for workers like Frank, Alex, Iain, and Kelty translates into more than creating those jobs where they will be able to transfer their skills. Continuing support of retraining opportunities through government initiatives is needed while making sure that there aren’t substantial wage disparities between the fossil fuel and renewable energy industries. So far, the latter point appears to be the biggest obstacle for many workers. Even when facing uncertainties, continued employment in the oil and gas industry is still seen as the most reliable solution for many of them. As Mr. Allen asserts in our conversation, sooner or later oil and gas companies will have to start investing in renewables to stay in operation: “The biggest investors in sustainable approach must be oil and gas companies. They got to transition to a mix of traditional oil and gas and increase the percentage of renewables. But you won’t see oil and gas ever going away.”
Anna Bettini is an environmental anthropologist specializing in human-environment relationships within energy landscape. She is currently a postdoctoral research associate at the Calgary Institute for the Humanities (CIH), University of Calgary.
The University of Calgary Conjoint Faculties Research Ethics Board has approved this study (REB22-0461)
This post is part of a series titled The Politics of Deindustrialization in Canada, edited by Lauren Laframboise. The authors in this series are affiliated to the Deindustrialization and the Politics of Our Time (DéPOT) project. DéPOT is hosting its annual conference in June 2023 in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.