VANCOUVER (miningweekly.com) – The Alberta provincial government has announced a C$40-million worker transition fund to provide income support for employees transitioning from working in the fossil-fuel-rich Western Canadian province’s thermal coal mines and coal-fired power plants, to new jobs or retirement.
The new Coal Workforce Transition Fund will complement the recently announced Coal Community Transition Fund, which supports locally led projects that focus on regional partnerships and economic diversification in Alberta’s coal communities.
Both initiatives are part of the Alberta government’s response to recommendations from the Advisory Panel on Coal Communities.
The province also called on the federal government to immediately create new flexibility criteria in the federal Employment Insurance (EI) programme that would allow workers to receive these income supports without reducing their EI payments – and to also extend the duration of EI benefits for coal workers.
“Alberta coal workers have a proud history of helping to power our prosperous and industrious province. I’ve heard first-hand how important it is to make sure we support workers and families as the country transitions away from coal. We’re calling on the federal government to step up and do their part to ensure this fund can help these workers earn a good living for themselves and their families,” said Alberta’s Economic Development and Trade Minister Deron Bilous in a statement.
The Coal Workforce Transition Fund will also provide workers with other backings, including direct support from facilitators with Alberta Labour who will meet with workers, their unions and employers to connect them with the service that works best for them; tuition vouchers to help cover costs related to post-secondary education, such as tuition, books and mandatory fees; third-party retraining programmes that provide employment placement, job matching and options for work exposure; and an array of professional certification courses.
“To all Alberta coal workers: we have your back. We know the move away from coal has created a lot of uncertainty, and that’s why we are working with you to make sure you have new opportunities to build a good life for yourselves and your families in your communities. Our government stands ready to support you,” added Labour Minister Christina Gray.
Canada is one of several countries making the shift away from heavy polluting coal power generation towards more sustainable and cleaner natural gas and renewables. In 2012, the federal government, under Conservative Stephen Harper, approved regulations to end coal-powered electricity generation at the Battle River and Sundance stations by 2019, at Keephills in 2029, and at Sheerness starting in 2036.
In 2014, the Harper government introduced regulations that would have prevented all Alberta coal plants from converting to natural gas.
However, the federal Liberal government, headed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has since shortened Canada’s coal phase-out deadline to December 31, 2029. The Alberta government intervened, securing exemptions from the Trudeau government that allow coal plants to continue operating past federally mandated end-dates through converting to natural gas.
This is in line with the Alberta government’s Climate Leadership Plan, which will phase out coal-fired electricity and transition to renewable and natural gas-generated electricity by 2030.
The province commissioned the coal panel’s work following the Coal Transition Report from world-renowned energy expert Terry Boston. Based on his recommendations, the Alberta government reached agreements last year that ensure power companies fulfil their existing and future legal obligations to affected employees, including severance and pension obligations; keep their head offices in Alberta; and continue to generate power for Alberta’s electricity market.
The United Steelworkers (USW), which represents 600 workers at a TransAlta-owned coal mine near Wabamun, welcomed the move, saying it is pleased that the government has listened to the voices of workers in developing its transition plan for those affected by the announced phase-out of coal-fired electricity generation.
''Coal workers have more than done their part in supporting the province and building Alberta's wealth. It's important the government be there for them now," Western Canada USW assistant to the director Scott Lunny said in a public statement.
"When society determines a direction like phasing out coal-fired electricity, it is imperative that the costs of such a decision are not borne exclusively by the workers, their families and their communities."
Items like dedicated funding for relocation and retraining will assist, but according to Lunny, it is critical that affected workers be first in line for new jobs, through preferential hiring by companies like TransAlta, which will continue to be operating in natural gas, renewable energy and other projects in the province.
The union also called on the federal government for support, saying EI can be extended, and to see to it that top-ups are not clawed-back and do not impact worker eligibility for EI.