By Denise Leduc, Rankandfile.ca writer
Just as Canada was signing the Paris Climate Treaty this spring, the LEAP Manifesto was continuing to generate discussion about renewable energy and a new national economic strategy based on shifting away from the fossil fuel and extractive industries. The NDP convention this year amplified the relevance of LEAP even further. At the same time emerged the unlikely voices of oil sands workers as part of Iron and Earth, a solutions-based initiative aimed at boosting Canada’s renewable energy industry.
Since their launch in 2015, workers from across Canada have been reaching out to Iron and Earth, which prides itself on being a worker-led initiative. Skilled tradespeople can even launch their own community chapters by following the guidelines set up by Iron and Earth on-line. So far a chapter has been started in Newfoundland but more are in the works. Others have supported the initiative by signing their pledge, the Workers’ Climate Plan, , sharing thoughts about Iron and Earth with various levels of government, and attending various town hall meetings.
Iron and Earth started as a documentary film making project directed by Lliam Hildebrand, featuring the discussions oilsands workers were having around their lunchroom tables. This project has transformed into an organization that is taking an active role in helping create the bridges needed to make a transition away from environmental harmful practices, like that of Alberta’s oilsands. The goal of Iron and Earth is to create tangible projects that will keep tradespeople employed during what needs to be a radical economic transformation. Iron and Earth organizers take pride in their success building ties with policy makers, businesses, environmentalists, and labour, instead of being part of the usual shouting matches.
The organization initially launched in 2015 by a coalition of boilermakers and electricians who now make up the majority of the Iron and Earth board of directors. Since March more than 600 workers who are passionate about building Canada’s renewable energy future have signed up with the organization. Iron and Earth embraces a strategy focusing on four pillars: collaboration, research, training, and advocacy.
Iron and Earth founder, Lliam Hildebrand, is a journeyman boilermaker who has been involved with a number of construction projects related to the oilsands, namely building pipelines and pressure vessels. But he has also worked with renewable technologies such as energy-creating industrial composters as wind farm weather stations. While working in the renewable energy industry he did not need any retraining and could directly apply the knowledge he has accumulated throughout his career. The transition for Hildebrand was relatively simple, but it made him realize that environmental sustainability did not have to mean unemployment for tradespeople now employed in oil.
As oilsands workers, the founders of Iron and Earth have firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to work in the carbon- based economy. These workers take pride in the work they do and have managed to make fair wages that provide for their families and the communities in which they live. Indeed, these workers have benefitted greatly from the oil boom. However, they are also aware of the environmental cost of their work and believe that change is necessary. At an Iron and Earth presentation in Saskatoon last month, speakers highlighted the Alberta town of Fort McKay, which has experienced both significant economic benefits as well as negative environmental impacts as a consequence of the oil and gas industry. These lessons are important.
Economic diversity and being able to apply a craft outside of oil is important when we consider the volatility of global commodity prices, according to Iron and Earth. Energy workers are particularly vulnerable because of their overwhelming reliance on oil and gas industries – in 2015, the sector shed over 40,000 jobs in one year. Iron and Earth believe that the oilsands will continue to play a vital role in Canada’s economy in the immediate future, but would like to see it managed in a more sustainable way. At the same time organizers want to push Canada to become more ambitious in developing renewable energy resources.
Renewable energy industries are growing fast, employing millions of workers and attracting billions of dollars of investment around the world. Iron and Earth believes Canada needs to get more of these jobs. They also believe we already possess the skilled workforce to take on this challenge.
In 2015 over $300 billion was spent worldwide in renewable energy industries. China alone spent $100 billion. Countries such as India, South Africa, Mexico and Chile all increased their investment in renewable energy throughout 2015. Yet Canada is lagging behind even these developing economies. While overall trends show investments in renewable energy were up, Canada’s investments in renewables actually dropped in 2015. Ontario and Quebec were leading the way while Saskatchewan had invested absolutely nothing in future industry, despite the potential for the deployment of solar and wind technologies throughout the Prairie Provinces. Ten industrial renewable energy technologies are tested and ready to go: small scale wind, large scale wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, biofuels, run of river, artificial photosynthesis, and concentrated solar. These technologies could employ workers throughout the building trades in addition to knowledge intensive research and development occupations throughout the province. With public ownership in critical areas – SaskPower, SaskEnergy, SaskWater, SaskTel, the Saskatchewan Polytechnic, the Universities of Saskatchewan and Regina – Saskatchewan is uniquely positioned to craft and execute a meaningful environmental sustainability policy.
In some instances retraining and education will be required for some workers and occupations, but this is possible with investment from the government and industry. To address this, Iron and Earth has created Solar Skills Campaign, which is a five day training program aimed at giving 1,000 unemployed electrical oil and gas workers the skills they need to work in the solar industry. This training was developed to meet the CSA standards on solar technology. The objective is to have workers install 100 solar arrays on the rooftops of public buildings such as high schools in various communities. At the end of the training a journeyman electrician will have acquired the skills they need to install this infrastructure. The goal is to have completed their first demonstration project by autumn of 2016.
Iron and Earth also recognizes the role that big business will play in this transition to renewable energy. Energy giant Enbridge is currently one of the biggest investors in solar power in Canada. Governments also play a crucial role. Recently, the province of Alberta has committed to 30 per cent renewable energy technology by 2030. Iron and Earth is dedicated to being a bridge and working with diverse groups to ensure good jobs for workers into the future. They are also enthusiastic to help Canada reach its climate change commitments. Although some might contest the role of energy companies in building a new economic system premised on renewal energy, Iron and Earth has developed a realistic and meaningful project oriented around transitioning away from environmentally harmful extraction practices. Along with LEAP, organized labour and policy makers need to pay attention to what Iron and Earth is saying, especially in resource-dependent provinces like Saskatchewan.