Fossil fuel free B.C.?

My first full-time job was at the Nalley’s chip factory on Annacis Island. I started the gig a day short of my 18th birthday. The first thing that shocked me was the astonishing amount of waste that occurred during production. The facility was old and somewhat in disrepair. Grease fires regularly broke out in the giant ovens, ancient diesel forklifts spewed fumes while speeding around the factory floor and an enormous amount of excess packaging ended up in the garbage.

Everything in the factory revolved around the speed of the assembly line. Working conditions and minimizing waste or pollution were an afterthought at best. That summer a labour dispute was simmering. One afternoon all of us workers were called into the warehouse to listen to a presentation by management. I’m hazy on the details, but I recall clear as day the threat that if the union didn’t ease up on wage demands the company would relocate somewhere cheaper to the south. A few years later, the suits made good on their threat and closed the factory, moving production to Oregon. The relocation option was just one reason the company didn’t invest in cleaner technology or any other infrastructure improvements. When the interests of big money come first, and when capital can move around almost at will, both workers and the environment get short shrift.

All that is by way of introduction to say that the widespread and simplistic framing of issues as being about “the economy vs the environment” or “workers vs environmentalists” is just fundamentally wrong. Working people, including those with industrial and extractive sector jobs, don’t necessarily care less than anybody else about protecting our environment. We all need a job, and, like the rest of us, workers in polluting industries would also like to see practices that tread more lightly on Mother Earth. The problem is that workers almost never have any say in the matter.

Workers in polluting industries care about the environment. | Photo by Daniel Foster

Workers in polluting industries care about the environment. | Photo by Daniel Foster

If we’re going to deal as a society with our environmental crisis, we’re going to need to move towards much greater economic democracy, and we’re going to need to consider first and foremost the needs of working people. In B.C. this is especially true outside of the Lower Mainland, in smaller and traditionally resource-dependent communities.

To this end, a new publication from the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) makes an important contribution to the discussion. Just Transition: Creating a green social contract for B.C.’s resource workers (available in full at is a much needed report, based in large part on interviews and focus groups with resource workers themselves. Importantly, this included workers from regions across the province, including those hard hit by the contraction of the forestry industry in recent years. The authors conclude that a majority of these workers “have a genuine concern about a changing climate and the future impacts on their health, economy and children.”

The CCPA report recommends significant new investment in worker retraining programs, as well as early retirement options and a “just transition fund,” which would take royalties from fossil fuel and other extractive industries to be reinvested in creating new, green jobs.

The report builds on the earlier work of the CCPA’s Climate Justice Project, which aims to provide an intellectual and policy framework for a sort of “green industrial revolution.” In writing about earlier research, the CCPA’s Marc Lee explained the concept, “If this green industrial revolution is to occur in a just manner, we need to help workers make the transition to new employment, and provide economically marginalized people with new opportunities to secure decent work and economic security. Creating green jobs allows us not only to confront climate change, but also to achieve climate justice.”

Unfortunately, we are currently stuck with a B.C. government that shows little to no interest in any talk of transitioning off of fossil fuels. Despite having legislation on the books that mandates cuts to our provincial greenhouse gas emissions, Christy Clark and the B.C. Liberals appear to be single-mindedly pursuing a future economy based on old and dirty industries: coal, oil and gas exports.

The findings of the CCPA report will hopefully be widely discussed throughout the labour and environmental movements, and even incorporated into the political platforms of the opposition parties in B.C., who have thus far failed to develop and articulate a vision of fundamental change for this province’s economy.

Transitioning to a fossil fuel free society is an idea largely beyond the limited scope of our current political debates in B.C.. Thank goodness the CCPA is on it, because it’s where we need to go as a province and as a planet. The sooner the better.