TORONTO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - After nearly a decade of riding Canada’s oil boom, drilling contractor Jennifer Turner found herself low on work, like thousands of other employees in the fossil fuel business left jobless following a plunge in oil prices.
Today, she helps unemployed oil workers find jobs in the burgeoning solar power industry. She hopes it’s part of a broader transition to adopt more renewable energy in the North American nation with the world’s third-largest oil reserves.
“Workers risk getting left behind,” said Turner, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group Iron and Earth based in western Alberta province, the heartland of Canada’s oil sector.
In fact, many require “minimal training” to repurpose their expertise for renewable energy projects, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Skills like welding, machinery repair and project management can be transferred from the oil industry to solar power installation or other renewable enterprises if workers get the right support, said Turner who still occasionally contracts for oil companies.
From the sands of Saudi Arabia, to the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota and Angola’s coastal waters, low oil prices, concerns over climate change and the falling cost of clean power are leading investors and governments to reconsider energy policies.
Finding jobs for ex-oil workers is key to smoothing the path towards renewable energy and building public support for that shift, officials and campaigners say.
The Paris Agreement to tackle climate change, adopted in 2015 by close to 200 governments, notes that countries will take into account “the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce” in their efforts to limit global warming.
Since oil prices collapsed in 2014, Canada has lost more than 40,000 jobs in oil, gas and related industries, showed data released last year by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, an industry group.
Extracting about 3.6 million barrels of oil daily, Canada is the largest foreign petroleum exporter to the United States and the world’s seventh largest producer, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Partially due to its oil industry, Canada is one of the highest per-capita greenhouse gas emitters among the wealthy countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Canada’s government has pledged to improve its record on climate change by investing in renewable energy, taxing carbon emissions and other policies.
In Alberta, which produces about 80 percent of Canada’s oil, renewable energy capacity is doubling roughly every two years, said Jim Sandercock, chair of the alternative energy technology program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.
Currently, renewable energy accounts for less than 10 percent of Alberta’s power, according to government figures.
With unemployment in the once-booming province at nearly 8 percent, largely due to lay-offs in the oil sector as prices dropped, interest in green energy training has grown swiftly, Sandercock said.
“Solar and other renewable energy used to be expensive,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Now they are amongst the cheapest forms of new electricity generation... any new technology has to get past that initial hump.”
The institute will double the number of places on its renewable energy program next year to 50, but demand is more than ten times that, the professor said.
The employment rate for graduates is 93 percent.
“We are about to see a tipping point” as clean energy grows rapidly in the United States and developing nations, Sandercock predicted. “These are exciting times.”
Employment in solar power in the United States jumped nearly 25 percent last year to more than 260,000 workers, according to a February study from The Solar Foundation, a trade group.
The U.S. solar power industry now employs more people than coal, according to a 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Energy. The broader oil industry, however, remains a larger employer than solar, despite recent job losses, it said.
Workers transferring from oil jobs into renewable energy are likely to take a significant “haircut” on their salaries when making the switch, said Sandercock.
But some still want to do it for environmental reasons, to avoid the boom-and-bust cycle common in the oil industry, or simply because they need a job, he added.
John Archer, a spokesman for Alberta’s government, said the province has programs to help unemployed oil workers.
“The biggest obstacle for workers who want to retrain is identifying which of their skills are transferable to new job opportunities and what new skills are needed,” Archer said.
The government does not have statistics on how many ex-oil workers have got green energy jobs since the price collapse in 2014, he added.
FOSSIL FUEL SUBSIDIES
Provincial officials expect to attract more than $10.5 billion in renewable electricity investment by 2030, creating an estimated 7,200 jobs.
“The Alberta government has committed to increasing the amount of green energy produced,” Archer said, without providing details on targets for energy generation or new projects.
Both Turner and Sandercock said the government could do more to create clean energy jobs, including better tax incentives for companies and individuals using green technologies.
Canada supplied $3 billion annually in financial backing - including government subsidies - for oil, gas and coal companies between 2013 and 2015, compared to $171 million for clean energy, according to data released in July by a coalition of environmental groups.
Despite this financial backing for fossil fuels, drilling supervisor and campaigner Turner believes the long-term outlook for renewables is more optimistic than for oil. “We just need to avoid excluding workers,” she said.