Open Letter to Oil and Gas Workers from Climate Justice Organizers
April 23, 2020
Dear Oil and Gas Workers,
As climate and social justice activists, we acknowledge that you need help and solidarity right now. It may surprise you to learn that we believe the common ground we share far outweighs the number of issues on which we differ. More importantly, we wish you and your loved ones well, and we are not your enemy.
We want to address an open letter that ran recently in major Canadian newspapers, and whose CEO authors claim to speak on your behalf. What strikes us about that letter is not the concern it expresses for your welfare and the specific challenges you face, but the lack thereof. The only demands these CEOs make seem geared to benefit themselves, not working people.
In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, your safety and wellbeing are on our minds. We understand that the Alberta government has designated your industry an essential service, leaving many of you no choice but to continue working in a dangerous environment exposed to Covid-19. On work sites in Alberta and in other provinces, including BC, there is evidence that social distancing protocols recommended by both Canadian medical authorities and the World Health Organization are not being followed.
Nowhere in the letter do the authors demand work stoppages and direct cash payments to oil and gas workers to tide you through this difficult period, and protect your families from the pandemic. With oil prices crashing below $0, we believe such a policy would make real and immediate sense. The letter also omits the role automation has played in the mass layoffs in your industry in recent years, a process sure to continue as companies try to maintain profitability by shedding payroll. The record of deadly industrial accidents at oil sands worksites, even in normal times, doesn’t come up either.
The authors’ chief demand is yet another injection of public funds into the pockets of owners and investors in the oil and gas sector — funds that would be better spent elsewhere. To justify their position, these CEOs jump from one bogus argument to the next.
Have revenues from oil and gas production contributed to public coffers over recent decades, helping to defray the costs of our healthcare system, among a great many other worthy programs? We should certainly hope so.
After all, it was mother nature, not “the industry,” that put oil and gas in the ground for companies to extract. People in Canada are entitled to expect to benefit from whatever revenue the natural resources inside its borders generates. But the history of the oil and gas sector in Canada is mostly one of corporations pocketing billions from the extraction of those resources, while operating under one of the most industry-friendly royalty regimes in the world. If the authors of the open letter get their way, the gap between the upside we all deserve and what most of us ultimately receive will be even greater.
No one in the country understands this disparity better than First Nations peoples, whose on-reserve public services are funded at cents on the dollar relative to those in non-Indigenous communities. Adding insult to injury, they are, in effect, the original owners of the resources the fossil fuel industry is extracting. Many are also forced to bear a disproportionate share of the increasingly heavy costs the fossil fuel industry imposes on the public, another important detail the authors neglect to mention. Is it any wonder that Indigenous peoples are so often on the front lines of the resistance to fossil fuel expansion?
What costs do we have in mind? For starters, there are direct, deferred expenses related to cleaning up orphaned wells and tailings ponds. There are the massive public subsidies that governments both federal and provincial continue to bestow on the oil and gas sector. (Though estimates vary, this figure amounts to billions annually, excluding the federal government’s purchase of the Trans Mountain project, and the Alberta government’s recent multi-billion-dollar investment in the Keystone XL.) Beyond that, there are also huge costs related to environmental degradation, pollution of land, air, and waterways, and arguably the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced: climate change. Left unchecked, the already vast human toll of that still escalating crisis will dwarf the value of all income derived from the fossil fuel sector in Canada.
Moreover, much like cigarette and asbestos corporations, by funding one of the most sweeping disinformation campaigns in living memory, the fossil fuel industry has sown baseless doubts about the fact that human industrial activity is disrupting our climate system. This is part of the reason why climate activists like us are compelled to spend time rejecting irrational proposals, like the one the authors advance: that we should shovel even more public funds at unviable companies to help them exploit more of our common property while paying us a relative pittance in royalties. As a further reward for our generosity, they’ll continue to sow death and destruction worldwide and keep us on course for an uninhabitable planet. All this to keep a relatively small number of Canadians employed in the existing paradigm for a few more years.
We find this frustrating. We’d much rather talk about plans for a sustainable future with well-paid employment than to re-hash, for the umpteenth time, that because climate change is a serious, immediate threat, it’s necessary to phase carbon-intensive industries out of existence and stop building new fossil fuel infrastructure.
The science is clear and well-established, and as multiple levels of Canadian government have recognized, climate change is an emergency. The world’s leading authorities on the topic at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have called for radical changes to the structure of our society over the next decade in order to avoid its worst impacts.
When the transport and shipping infrastructure that dominates our world was first designed and built (mostly with public funding and initiative), the seriousness of the threat of climate change was not well understood. Governments and societies were operating on the assumption that fossil fuels could be burned indefinitely, without serious ill effects. Today, we know that assumption was false, and public policy interventions are again needed to redesign those systems to reflect our present understanding.
To leave the kind of legacy to our children we can all take pride in, we’ll need to mobilize the expertise and know-how of our entire society, including workers like you. Instead of advocating for policies that will bring limited benefit and considerable harm, as the authors of the letter do, we invite you to join us in fighting for a future that works for everyone, including you and your family. The first and most obvious step is to reject further infusions of public resources into the corporate suites of the climate-destroying fossil fuel industry.
Like the Great Depression of the 1930s, Covid-19 has inflicted both humanitarian and economic distress across the country and around the world. Now is an ideal time for all of us to come together to demand justice and build a greener, brighter, better world for all humanity.
Climate Convergence Metro Vancouver