Energy union calls for intelligent policy on oil sands

On 2 December, representatives of the ICEM Canadian affiliate Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) Union participated in a discussion on trade union perspectives on the Canadian bituminous sands, or tar sands or oil sands.

Organized by the Cornell Global Labor Institute and the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) with the CEP, the session was part of the international trade union World of Work events held at the 17th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP-17) in Durban, South Africa.

Jim Britton, CEP Western Region Vice-President, introduced the CEP and its membership. The CEP is Canada's energy union.

Britton explained why the question of the tar sands cannot be separated from the question of the Keystone XL Pipeline, a new pipeline connecting the province of Alberta with US refineries. CEP has been opposed to the Keystone pipeline, and several previous pipeline proposals, for two reasons: the value-added processing of Canada's bitumen should take place in Canada; and the pipelines stand as a symptom of the lack of a sustainable energy policy in Canada, which is desperately needed.

Sadly, these concerns have not found traction with Canada's present Conservative government, nor with the regulatory bodies or courts in Canada.

An intelligent energy policy could ensure a rational continued development of the tar sands, with the creation of high-quality permanent jobs and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Canadians, including those who mine and process bitumen, want adequate regulation that ensures job creation, environmental protection, respects First Nations' rights, a growing economy and reduced risks for business.

This is an area where everyone could win. Instead, Canada is sacrificing energy security and sustainability for short-term and short-sighted profits. It cannot be jobs "or" the environment, it must be both. CEP members expect it and the CEP will fight for it.

Roland Lefort

Roland Lefort, President of CEP Local 707, representing thousands of oil sands workers, explained that his position was based on CEP policies on energy, the environment, and Just Transition that have been developed over many years and affirmed at successive CEP Conventions. Together, these call on Canada to develop a plan for the sustainable development of the oil sands.

This plan would ensure, among other things: energy security for Canadians; carbon capture and storage for all new tar sands projects; the promotion of energy conservation; a well-funded Just Transition plan for energy workers and energy-dependent regions of the country; a fulfilment of Canada's commitments to stabilize and then cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Oil sands workers in Canada believe in the science of climate change, the rights of aboriginal peoples, and the protection of Canada's resources. Their position is one of sustainable development. It disagrees with the proposition that there are only two positions on the issue of oil sands development – all or nothing.

The present Canadian government and industry want to extract the oil sands without impediments or controls, while the environmental lobby, which is getting stronger by the day, wants to shut down the oil sands. The CEP believes that there is a position in between, a position of balance, a position for sustainability.

To that effect, the CEP has been working to bring together government, labour, First Nations, and environmentalists to the table to develop the plan on energy as stated in our policies.

Lefort's strong presentation in Durban, backed by his personal credibility as a miner and President of Canada's largest group of unionized oil sands workers, made a huge impact on the audience.

Another panelist was Roger Toussaint of New York City and the Transport Workers' Union (TWU). He stated that the issues involved in the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline affected everyone and his union decided it could not be silent on the issue. Instead of uncontrolled development, there is a potential to move towards a lower-carbon and just economy, with the creation of millions of good jobs in renewable energy, mass transportation, energy-efficient buildings, and the like. Toussaint believes that the global labour movement can lead this change and pointed out the forward-looking policies of the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) as an example.

Asking a question from the floor, Anthony Jacobs, Director of National Construction Agreements for the ICEM-affiliated and US-based International Brotherhood of Boilermakers (IBB) stated that he understood Lefort's position, but passionately defended his union's support for the Keystone XL pipeline and the potential construction jobs it represented. Lefort said that he accepted and understood the IBB position but hoped that he understood CEP's.

Other considerations in the debate on the Keystone XL pipeline include the US's dependency on foreign oil and the potential mutual economic benefit to Canada and the US.

The event illustrated the value of unions' direct participation in international events such as COP-17. The value of an opportunity to hear directly from those affected is impossible to overstate., Mon Dec 19 2011

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