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A war of words between Alberta and Ottawa: What does 'just transition' actually mean?

A yet-to-be-tabled bill that Canada's energy minister says will help support workers seeking to make a transition to new jobs in a lower-carbon future has created a war of words between Ottawa and Alberta. But what does a 'just transition' actually mean?

On Tuesday, Alberta's Environment Minister Sonya Savage criticized Ottawa's intentions to create a 'just transition' bill in the new year, with the premier saying Albertans are "not interested" in having the largest industry in the province "phased out of existence."


Jonathan Wilkinson, federal minister of natural resources, told CTV News Edmonton that the bill is not job-killing as Premier Danielle Smith characterized, but the "opposite of that."

"This is really about looking forward to a future which will involve a transition to a lower-carbon economy and trying to ensure that every region of this country has an economic strategy that will result in good jobs and economic development and prosperity," Wilkinson explained.

While the term 'just transition' has international recognition, Wilkinson said he preferred referring to the Liberal's proposal as a sustainable energy work plan.

"We want to assure workers and communities that we are going to be there to actually ensure that as things evolve, that we are going to be there to support them and to work to ensure they have a prosperous and secure future," he said.

Wilkinson says the legislation would largely be "principle-based," with an action plan summarizing existing supports available and future programs to help workers and communities that would be developed with provinces and territories.

He believes that legislation is one piece of the puzzle in a "range of tools," alongside energy industry and other sector emission caps and "significant" investments in technology reducing emissions to help Canada meet its climate goals.

The federal minister says there is little disagreement between Ottawa and Alberta, with the energy transition being a decades-long process where oil and gas still have a place.

"Alberta is enormously well-situated from an economic perspective," Wilkinson added. "It's the low-emissions producers that will actually be the last ones standing in that race."


For Savage, who was previously Alberta's energy minister, if the federal government intends to support diversification efforts and protect workers, then Ottawa should drop the term 'just transition.'

"It's a polarizing term that actually divides, and it means something to the environmental community, to the international community; it means ending fossil fuels. It means phasing them out," she told CTV News Edmonton in an interview Friday.

"The word transition itself means coming to an end, moving on, being replaced, and in this case, it means your job. So no wonder people are mad. If that's the reason, if that's the case they need to change their terminology."

She hopes the proposed legislation focuses on future energy solutions, protects the role of oil and gas industry in the transition, and supports new jobs and investments — especially in emission reduction tech like carbon capture storage and utilization.

"We know there is a transition underway," Savage clarified, adding that a full one won't occur until other energy alternatives are more reliable and affordable.

She claimed the federal government's use of the term 'just transition' was "virtue signalling" to try and "appease certain elements of their base" or the federal NDP coalition.

"We are not giving up oil and gas," Savage said, "because it is going to continue to not only be part of the energy mix but dominate the energy mix for decades ahead. But to be able to be competitive, we have to have the lowest emitting sources of energy, and that means producing oil and gas with the lowest emissions."

"We don't need to put it all in the framework of some big legislation called the 'just transition.'"


For Louisa Da Silva, it's not so much about the language that matters, but how workers will be supported and protected if they choose to move on from the oil and gas sector.

As executive director of Iron and Earth, a non-profit representing people working in the fossil fuel industry and Indigenous people, she was involved in Ottawa's consultations last year on what a 'just transition' bill should include. 

"This is legislation that the workers have been waiting years for," Da Silva said. "This is some of the biggest challenges that workers face.

"When your entire livelihood has been in one industry and your family and your friends, your community, your professional colleagues are all working in oil and gas, and you are seeing the future, and you want to move into something different, having that support system," she added, "will make it a soft landing."

In her view, that legislation was never intended to "kill the oil sands and prop up renewables."

The bill would actually provide autonomy and equity to communities to help drive diversification, Da Silva added.

"The 'just transition' is meant to be is if you choose to move into this industry, here are the supports that you are going to have," Da Silva said. "One of the things I always tell myself all the time is that the person who invented the lightbulb worked by candlelight.

"We need fossil fuels in order to build up a renewables sector. We need to use the existing technologies that we have and the energy that we have right now in order to be able to transition to something else."

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Saif Kaisar and Alberta Prime Time Top Stories

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