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Federal Minister of Natural Resources Jonathan Wilkinson waits to speak to the media at the COP15 biodiversity conference in Dec. 2022.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

It is hard to imagine a worse-sounding catch phrase than “just transition.” In terms of heavy-handedness, it’s reminiscent of a 10-year-old expression from the other side of the political spectrum: “ethical oil.”

But people know it’s more complicated than that – that such grandiose language will surely let you down. Anyone talking with earnestness about just transition is probably well versed with the Paris Agreement but removed the day-to-day realities of the energy sector. People in cities might picture a roughneck moving seamlessly into a new career installing solar panels. Oil and gas workers are more likely to imagine their incomes and daily purpose disappearing, and a regional economy artificially ground to a halt.

As the federal Liberal government prepares to move on its just-transition pledge from the 2019 election, cabinet ministers Jonathan Wilkinson and Seamus O’Regan have at least realized there’s a communications problem – they don’t like the name either. So they have changed the tagline of Ottawa’s more than three-year-old promise – to give workers and communities reliant on the fossil-fuel industry “the training, support and new opportunities needed to succeed in the clean economy” – to “sustainable jobs.” That phrasing at least nods to the tempered expectations everyone should have.

But still, when the CBC this week reported that the legislation and action plan was coming this spring, its shorthand was still “just transition.” The government’s websites still say that. And thus, 2023 starts with a just-transition battle with Alberta.

Premier Danielle Smith has tweeted that it’s a plan to phase out an entire industry that employs hundreds of thousands of Canadians. On the other side, Ottawa says it’s a training-and-incentive framework for future jobs: “It is probably going to be more boring than what many are anticipating,” said Mr. Wilkinson, the Natural Resources Minister, in an interview.

When the federal Liberals rolled out their just-transition plan in the 2019 campaign, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Alberta’s economy was in the dumps. There was barely a whimper from Ottawa as Encana, a company whose roots date nearly back to the establishment of Canada as a country, decided to shift its head office to the United States. A global push on climate action meant some believed the entire oil and gas industry would be effectively done in matter of years anyway.

But the end of the fossil-fuel age might be further down the line than expected, as has been shown in 2022 – especially with the invasion of Ukraine and sharp energy shortages in the Eastern Hemisphere. And for the Smith government, any federal energy policy that could threaten energy investment and jobs in Canada for the decades of remaining usage are incomprehensibly wrong-headed. Oil and natural gas production is being ceded to countries run by despots and dictators, as global consumption continues, the provincial government says.

“We expect the federal government to stand up for our world-leading oil and gas employees, instead of trying to eliminate their jobs,” Alberta Environment Minister Sonya Savage said in her Twitter thread on just transition this week.

Both levels of government have practical and political reasons for acting as they do. In Alberta, the rollout of a complete cut of the gasoline tax this month hasn’t gone as swimmingly as the United Conservative Party would hope for (with little discernible drop in retail prices, and the Opposition NDP calling for a review). The NDP and the UCP are in a fierce battle to show who is best at standing up for the province’s economic interests ahead of the May provincial election.

Politically, the federal Liberals need something to show they do sometimes, at least, think of the roughnecks of Canada, the geologists of Calgary, the Fort McKay First Nation contractors, or the economic realities of Alberta and Saskatchewan. That has been sorely lacking. The concern for the push for “just transition” or “sustainable jobs” is that it’s all performative for the party’s real base, far off the prairies.

It’s not one single piece of legislation or policy that Westerners are looking at – they’re also concerned about the energy package that includes an industry-specific cap on oil and gas emissions coming this year, or a law that makes the building of new infrastructure projects more difficult. These are policies that will hit oil-producing provinces and industries while the federal government tells others the green transition can and will be relatively painless.

In everything he does, Mr. Wilkinson highlights that climate change is an existential threat to the ecosystems we know and that the world is demanding action. He talks about critical mineral projects in the Northwest Territories that will only go ahead if investors can get assurances the mines won’t run on diesel generators.

On the wording of “just transition,” he acknowledges that it “has been interpreted that the focus is on taking away things rather than adding to things” and understood as “taking away somebody’s job, and somehow moving them into something that will be less attractive economically, or simpler in terms of skills and contribution.”

“I actually think you need to flip it on its head, and you need to have a more positive conversation about where we’re heading. And that it will create opportunity in a range of different areas, including in the traditional energy sector.”

We have yet to see the actual legislation. But it could lead to renewable and hydrogen energy training programs at the technical colleges of Alberta and Saskatchewan. It could be about learning how to build carbon-capture projects adjacent to oil sands projects. It could be about expanding the electricity grid. It could take a page from the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act, which incentivizes a stunning array of climate initiatives and energy projects.

No one in Alberta is going to have an issue with that. The problem will be if there’s a federal policy that sounds, even in language rather than substance, like it’s imposing a grand new economic plan.

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