Report: Bridging the gap between urban environmentalists and coal-producing communities

Just over a year ago we set out to get the conversation around the future of coal moving forward in Saskatchewan, and now we’re excited to be releasing our first report on the topic – Bridging the gap: Building bridges between urban environmental groups and coal-producing communities. You can read the report here (pdf), and find other resources here.

In April of this year we traveled to Estevan and Coronach – the province’s principle coal-producing communities – and over a number of days we sat down and had in-depth conversations with coal and service industry workers, town administrators, union representatives, and farmers. We wanted to hear and understand people’s perspectives on the future of coal and energy in the province, and how a just transition towards renewable energy might work in our context. In every case, we were welcomed by community members and it quickly became evident that people wanted to share their stories, particularly with folks from a group perceived to be on the other side of a pressing issue facing the province: the federally-mandated phase-out of traditional coal-fired electricity generation by 2030.

We at CJS see such a phase-out as a critical and urgent step as we move to decarbonize the province by mid-century in line with the timeline laid out by the IPCC in order to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. We recognize that such a policy has significant implications for folks living and working in Estevan and Coronach. While we’ve been advocating for a rapid transition to renewable energy for years, we have not spent time engaging with coal workers and their communities over what this would mean for them and how to make sure that such a transition doesn’t leave anyone behind. This project is our effort to change that, and to start meaningful conversations about meeting the challenges before us.

Watch this short video for a brief introduction to the project:

A lot has happened in the short time since we began this work. While not abandoning its support for coal in the medium-term, SaskPower has announced that it won’t be pursuing further carbon capture and storage installations at Boundary Dam power station; recognizing the need to support workers through its mandated coal phase out, the federal government launched a Just Transition Task Force, which passed through Estevan and Coronach this summer; and Ottawa and Regina continued to argue about carbon pricing, creating confusion and uncertainty about climate policy across the country.

One thing that hasn’t changed is that Saskatchewan still hasn’t come up with a clear plan for the future of coal in this province. One of our major takeaways from this work is that this really matters – the lack of planning and communication is creating uncertainty and fear about the future in these communities, and this is actually already having a tangible impact on people’s lives. In some cases community investment is falling short of what’s needed, and families are facing tough decisions about staying in their homes or uprooting to seek new opportunities. People feel constrained and frustrated by a lack of clear choices and let down by decision-makers. Intriguingly, we found that we identify with these feelings too – we’re all facing an uncertain future and see a glaring need for greater leadership on meeting this challenge.

We certainly didn’t agree on everything in our conversations with participants, but the common feelings we identified between us are significant – these are feelings that can easily lead to division, but now we see an opportunity to use them as a common basis for trying to move forward together. And working together can undoubtedly make this transition easier for everybody.

Report cover
Read the report here (pdf).

We see the need for a number of critical conversations in this province. Talking more about climate change is an obvious one. We found that climate change isn’t well understood, particularly in terms of the local impacts we can expect in the province or in terms of its economic and social dimensions, and we realized that when climate change isn’t part of the conversation phasing out coal, especially on a tight timeline, makes little sense. Of course, climate change is the very reason we’re advocating for a shift to renewable energy. However, there also needs to be more talk about what exactly this means – about what a province powered by renewable energy looks like, and what it will take to get there. We’re exploring more about the technical challenges of such a transition and will be releasing a second report in the coming weeks on this topic. In addition, we recognize a need for more open and honest conversations about rural decline in Saskatchewan, and what sorts of supports might be implemented to keep rural communities viable. This is a longer-term issue but one that cannot be ignored in discussions about the future of the province.

We approached this project as a relationship building exercise and we’re excited about the conversations we’ve had already. CJS will continue to advocate for a rapid transition to renewable energy, but we’re also committed to advocating for solutions that create meaningful opportunities for all communities in the province, and to encouraging conversations that ensure everyone has a say in our collective future.

Climate change advocacy can at times be difficult and disheartening.  With our approach to this research we hope to show that there is more to it than polarizing debate and policy inertia. We are working to creatively navigate and confront stalemates to build a future that includes everyone. If this work resonates with you in any way, feel free to reach out to our organizing team to get more involved and keep the conversation going.

You can explore more about this project and our findings on our Future of Coal page here. There you’ll find our full research report, along with audio and video about our experiences with this work and perspectives on meeting the challenges ahead. We’ll continue adding to this as we continue to work on the project and engage with others. Please get in touch with us if you have any questions by emailing climateactionsk[at]gmail[dot]com. In the meantime, have a listen to a conversation about how this work has impacted the way we think about the future of energy in the province:

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