Jobs vs. the Environment: Do We Have to Make a Choice?

Keynote Address Given at a Sunshine Coast Public Forum
May 1, 2002

I am glad to be talking to you today about the jobs vs. the environment dilemma because a major focus of my job is trying to resolve this dichotomy. I work with an advisory group of people who are from the labour, environmental, and First Nations communities and I’ve done research on BC’s forestry, oil and gas, fishing, and mining sectors.

What I’ve found is that only rarely does this trade-off actually exist. What I will do today is present what I’ve learned through my research, and hopefully convince you that there are ways to manage our natural resources and develop our resource industries so that we can have clean air, clean water and healthy forests, while maintaining good jobs and stable communities.

Oil and Gas

Let me begin with the oil and gas sector. I recently published a brief on the economics of offshore oil, including job implications, drawing on the Hibernia experience in Newfoundland. What the research showed was that offshore oil development is a hugely expensive endeavour. Despite the incredible capital investment, however, relatively few jobs were created. Even worse, the jobs that were created were either:

  1. not filled by local people, in the case of exploration contractors who bring in their own crews from elsewhere; or
  2. short-term, such as the 2 to 5 year employment opportunities to build an oil rig, if it’s built locally.

So, the end result for Hibernia is that after a $6 billion investment–including billions in government subsidies, tax breaks, and loan guarantees–fewer than 800 jobs remain. Two-thirds of those are offshore.

A 1997 study by the Pembina Institute compared various energy projects by how many jobs they created. What the study showed was that, first of all, Hibernia was typical of conventional energy projects like oil and gas development or hydroelectric projects. They don’t create that many jobs: only 7 for every million dollars invested. For the same investment, renewable energy projects created 60% more jobs. Renewable forms of electricity are also economically viable. Electricity can be created from wind turbines at 6 cents per kWh, which is very competitive. This is down from 20 cents/kWh ten years ago and, in another ten years, it’ll be 3-4 cents. Oil and gas exploration is only getting more expensive, as reserves dwindle.

Both wind and solar electricity production are projected to have double-digit growth per year over the next ten years, matching their growth in the last decade. Global demand for renewable electricity continues to grow as well, from U.S.$7 billion per year this year to a projected U.S.$82 billion in ten years.

These economic realities don’t even take into account all the externalized environmental costs of producing conventional energy:

  • Increased air pollution and health care costs from burning fossil fuels;
  • The flooding of land, destruction of fish habitat, and devastation of traditional lifestyles from hydroelectricity; and
  • The high safety risks and highly radioactive waste produced by the nuclear industry, to name three.

The only reason we don’t see wind farms everywhere is that conventional energy continues to be heavily subsidized. The Canadian federal government alone has extended $40 billion in subsidies to conventional energy production over the last 30 years, according to Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment. These subsidies have decreased, but the federal government continues to spend $250 million per year on unsustainable energy production.

Let’s look at energy efficiency or energy conservation. One way to deal with growing energy demand as a society, rather than just going out and producing more power, is to become more energy efficient. Conservation means we’re still doing the same things, whether it’s heating homes or producing goods in factories, but we’re doing them using less energy. This has an obvious environmental benefit, since we don’t have to burn as much coal, dam as many rivers, or build more nuclear power plants. But conservation efforts also create a whole whack of jobs–five times more jobs than the same investment in creating more power, according to that Pembina Institute report.

There are two reasons why energy efficiency creates so many jobs. The first is that many of the activities required to save energy are very labour-intensive. Making our buildings less energy-intensive requires labour to retrofit doors and windows or install insulation. Making industrial processes less energy-intensive requires manufacturing more efficient machinery and replacing existing machinery. Sometimes, whole industrial processes are changed, requiring labour at every step.

The money saved on energy bills also creates jobs. Whether it’s an industrial employer or a homeowner, when people have more money in their pocket, they will spend at least part of it on local goods and services, creating spin-off employment.

Climate Change

There are employment issues that do come up when we undertake shifts in our economy, especially shifts as fundamental as how much energy we use and where it comes from. But with political will, these can be addressed. I published a report on climate change that estimated the employment impacts on the domestic energy sector if Canada met its commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. What I found is that Canada could meet its Kyoto commitments and also have more jobs in its energy sector. Given the Pembina report cited earlier, this is no surprise.

There would be a slight shift in the kinds of energy jobs that are available. Jobs created would not necessarily go to those who lose their jobs in conventional energy industries. They wouldn’t necessarily be in the same region of the country. This is why, as part of the report, I developed a transition strategy for Canadian energy workers who do lose their jobs.

When I released the report, I was accompanied by Gerry Scott from the David Suzuki Foundation, a long-time proponent of climate protection. Brian Payne, national president of the Communications Energy and Paperworkers’ union (the CEP), the largest energy union in Canada, was also there. The CEP is not overly concerned about Kyoto. In fact, they have tabled an energy policy that endorses Kyoto ratification. The reason is that they know there will be more energy jobs in Canada following ratification.

The same is true of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. They overwhelmingly passed a resolution supporting Kyoto ratification. This included support from the majority of Alberta delegates, those whose cities will likely be most affected. The key for both workers and municipalities, though, is transition. How we deal with this shift, whether we allocate resources to this transition or not, will say a lot about what kind of society we live in. But, as Brian Payne has said, "It doesn’t have to be a question of jobs or the environment. Clearly, we can have both."


Alliances between environmentalists and trade unionists have happened in other sectors as well, showing that the trade-off is frequently illusory. In the late 1980s, there was tremendous public concern about dioxins, furans, and other pulp mill chemicals. Some fisheries on the BC coast were closed down because shellfish were so contaminated with dioxins, it would be hazardous to eat them. Here’s a jobs vs. jobs situation. The only way to get both is to clean up pulp mills.

The public, with the help of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union (the UFAWA) and environmental groups, put pressure on BC’s pulp mills and the provincial government, first the Socreds and then the NDP. Pressure was so high that pulp mills began changing their processes even before the NDP passed the Zero AOX Law in 1992. Unfortunately, they only went halfway, switching from chlorine to chlorine dioxide bleach, instead of eliminating chlorine bleach altogether. The result is that dioxins and other chlorinated compounds are in lower concentrations but still present. Pulp mill workers now experience higher risks to their health and safety because–though both chlorine and chlorine dioxide are dangerous when leaked–chlorine dioxide is harder to detect when leaks occur.

The BC Liberal government has just scrapped the last stage of the Zero AOX Law, due to kick in in January 2003. So, both worker and environmental health will continue to be compromised.

The UFAWA have also campaigned against open net salmon farms. Why would they do this? BC’s Salmon Farming Association contends that an economic and job boom will ensue from lifting the moratorium on new salmon farms. The UFAWU even has members who work on salmon farms.

The reason is that open net salmon farms carry incredibly high environmental risks:

  • From Atlantic salmon escaping and spawning in BC waters;
  • From disease transfer from farmed to wild salmon; and
  • From the waste that flows freely out of open nets.

This is another jobs vs. jobs situation and the fishermen’s union, not surprisingly, is not willing to risk existing jobs for the promise of future jobs.

The point here is that a healthy and vibrant economy is dependent on a healthy ecosystem, not the other way around. We can’t afford to degrade the natural environment as we undertake industrial activities, promising to "put it back" once we can afford to. Degrading the natural environment means reducing its ability to provide the things we need, for basic survival but also for economic prosperity. This is especially true for resource-based communities, but I’d be hard-pressed to name one industry that doesn’t depend on resources that flow from our land or sea.

The closing down of fisheries to conserve stocks is one potential jobs vs. the environment situation. But if we scratch a little deeper, we can see that depleting Canadian fish stocks and declining employment levels in fisheries on both coasts have one principal cause: the corporatization of the fishing fleet.

In the late 1990s, some West Coast salmon runs were dwindling, and the general consensus was that there was overcapacity in the salmon fleet. "Too many boats chasing too few fish" was the diagnosis. This was no doubt true, but what this simplistic analysis ignored was that different boats had differing impacts on declining stocks. The seiners, the large fishing vessels mostly owned or controlled by one of three major processing companies, employ only two to three times the fishermen per boat compared to gillnetters or trollers, but catch fish in far greater proportions.

Both the Mifflin Plan of 1996 and the Anderson Plan of 1999 also ignored this fact. Their strategy to buy back licenses on a voluntary basis netted a higher proportion of licenses from independent fishermen–mostly gillnetters and trollers–compared to seine licenses. The result of the two plans is that two-thirds of salmon fishermen are no longer fishing, but this has had no impact on how many fish are being caught. Many of the licenses were bought from small-boat fishermen who had little impact on the catch in the first place. The catch is determined, now as before, by the number of salmon left over after enough of them have "escaped" to spawn, not on the number of boats out on the water.

A decade before, the same thing happened to the eastern cod. Inshore, independent fishermen had been saying for years that the cod were disappearing. Once Canada got control of the 200-mile limit, large Canadian offshore factory trawlers merely replaced foreign-owned ones that could no longer fish the majority of the Grand Banks. These trawlers, employing few people, finished off the eastern cod. Now, there are no cod or jobs for anybody.

Successful fisheries–that is, those that are managed sustainably over the long-term, creating healthy local economies–all have similar characteristics. They have local decision-making power, they have a system to share the fish equitably, and access to the fishery is held locally. The solution for the West Coast salmon fishery, then, is to restrict licenses to owner-operators alone, to allow only one license per boat for each fishery, and for some decision-making power to be devolved from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. This would reverse the trend towards corporate control of the salmon fleet and keep more of the wealth locally.

Of course, many mainstream economists would relegate me to the loony bin if they heard this analysis. Big boats and salmon farms are two ways to make fisheries more productive and efficient, they would argue. This is why I will never be an economist, because I have other niggling considerations beyond efficiency–things like equity, community stability, and environmental sustainability.


A classic example of an industry that satisfies neither employment maximization nor environmental protection is our mining industry. Our society continues to allow mining wherever a sufficient body of minerals is found. After minerals have been refined, manufactured into products, and "consumed", the majority of it ends up in landfills. This one-way street creates few jobs. The mining industry pays well, but is so mechanized that a billion kilograms of minerals can be extracted every year by fewer than 4,000 BC miners.

Environmentally, both mining and landfilling are disastrous land use practices. You would think that, given the impact of these activities, we would try to limit both by coordinating minerals usage in a way that maximized their utility once we got them out of the ground. Instead, we hurry them back in.

So how do we maximize their use? The durability of metals is what makes up for their inability to grow or procreate, like fish and trees. It allows us to reuse them again and again. Some would say that municipal recycling is one of the few environmental success stories of our age. But municipal authorities often use 50% recycling as a benchmark, and that achievement gets eroded by population growth, increased affluence, and the increasing prevalence of throwaway products. During the 1990s, the Greater Vancouver Regional District doubled its recycling rate and achieved 50% diversion, yet only decreased waste going to landfill by 17%. Meanwhile, the stewardship of durable goods like refrigerators, electronic equipment, and motor vehicles is non-existent in North America.

It goes without saying that many more jobs would be created if we decided to take mineral stewardship seriously. The individual processes that make up recycling–sorting, re-processing, and re-manufacturing–are more labour-intensive than mining. European jurisdictions like Germany require car manufacturers to be responsible for their vehicles once their lives are over. This employs people in the disassembly and re-use of metals and other materials.

Canadian governments should be mandating this kind of responsibility or giving financial incentives for people and companies to do it. Instead, they’ve given priority access over land use to mining companies, given tax credits for mineral exploration, and are left with an estimated $6 billion bill to properly reclaim abandoned mine sites.


We come, finally, to the granddaddy of the jobs vs. the environment conflicts in BC: forestry. We’ve all seen images of environmentalists sitting on logging roads or chained to trees. On the surface, the more BC is "protected" in parks, the less is available for forestry activities that create jobs.

But just like fisheries, that notion ignores two realities:

  1. You can't take more than what grows. At some point, with unlimited logging, you will end up with neither jobs nor forests. I hope we realize that before old-growth forests are gone, since both the NDP and the Liberals allowed logging well above the sustainable harvest rate (though the NDP did double the area of parks to cover 12% of the province). It is the intent of the forest companies to "liquidate" all old-growth forests found outside parks, and no recent government has stood in their way; and
  2. The type of forest industry at work is way more important to levels of employment than how much of the landbase that industry has access to. For example, if we doubled parks from 12% of BC to 24%, we would be removing 12% of BC from resource development. But we could create 50% more jobs with the wood we cut, like the rest of Canada, or 2 to 2 1/2 times more jobs, like Scandinavia, the U.S. or New Zealand.

BC creates so few jobs with its wood because it continues to concentrate on basic commodity production, lumber and pulp. Making value-added products like paper and furniture not only creates more jobs, it also stabilizes resource-dependent communities. I grew up in a community dependent on iron ore mining, and I could tell you the world price of iron ore at any time simply by looking around my town at the number of "For Sale" signs in front yards. Prince Rupert, Port Alberni, and Kimberley are no different.

In many cases, companies that operate in BC make value-added forestry products; they’re just not interested in doing it here. Japanese firms own substantial portions of BC’s pulp industry. We don’t make a lot of paper here, but we ship a lot of pulp to Japan to be turned into paper there. Weyerhaeuser advertises itself as the world’s largest producer of engineered wood products, North America’s second-largest producer of structural wood panels, and the world’s second-largest producer of uncoated freesheet paper, containerboard, and Kraft paper. But despite having access to more BC forests than any other company, Weyerhaeuser does very little "engineering" or "producing" here, other than pulp and lumber.

Some Scandinavian countries have managed to do what the BC forest industry says is impossible: make good profits, using environmentally-friendly operations with large, powerful unions. Sweden’s IKEA furniture manufacturer is a world leader, turning wood into finished products in many different countries, including Sweden. Ernst & Young, a corporate consulting firm, reported in 2001 that BC could sell $10 billion in value-added solid wood products every year, by making a $5-8 billion investment. We’re still waiting for that investment.

The Finnish pulp industry in the early 1990s looked much like ours in the late 1990s. It had lost its major market–the Soviet Union–and its mills were uncompetitive. It invested its way out, by creating large, efficient mills that produced totally-chlorine free pulp, using oxygen-based bleaches. The production of eco-friendly pulp allowed it to expand its markets in Europe and Asia.

Investment in Finnish pulp mills made their operations more productive as well, of course, meaning fewer workers in each mill. But every pulp mill in Finland has a paper machine. That’s where jobs are created and, especially when the market for pulp turns down, that’s where companies can make money.

BC mills have made few such investments. The forest industry has been on a capital strike since the mid-1990s. In 1998 and 1999, industry investment fell below depreciation, which means companies weren’t even replacing aging and failing machinery. In fact, I was speaking with an environmental manager at a BC pulp mill who informed me that he had proposed an investment that would save the company money and decrease the release of a toxic chemical. The proposal was turned down because the payback period was three years. He was told the company accepted no project with a payback period of more than one year.

This refusal to make necessary long-term investments is one of the reasons I think BC needs tenure reform. We need to diversify tenure to include community forest projects, both aboriginal and non-aboriginal. These tend to be more environmentally-friendly and more labour-intensive operations. They also tend to be less unionized, and are thus looked upon with suspicion by many workers. The solution is to make any tenure transferred to non-aboriginal community forestry should employ union succession rules. This would keep the union in place as cutting rights are transferred.

It is possible to make our industrial forest companies more environmentally-friendly and create more jobs while we’re at it. Ironically, what is required for both is the same thing: investment–investment that signals a company’s intent to be in it for the long haul, to be a force of community stability, while protecting the valuable natural resource that it depends upon. And if these corporations indicate that they’re not interested in these things, we can and should find others who are willing to put money on the table.


I hope I have given you enough examples that, if you did think that there was a trade-off between creating good jobs and protecting environmental quality, you’re at least starting to doubt that now. Your question may be, "Why is it, then, that environmental problems are often presented in this way? Why do we think that there is a trade-off?"

I’m not sure I know the answer, but one reason may be that corporate leaders seem to talk about jobs a lot. During this ongoing softwood lumber dispute, forest company representatives spoke of the 15,000 workers who were out of work, urging the federal government to bail out the industry. The Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters published a report estimating that 450,000 jobs would be lost in Canada if we ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Whenever parks are created, or mine applications turned down, jobs, jobs, jobs is what we hear from industry spokespeople.

That’s ironic, because capital doesn’t care about employment. It cares about profits and returns on capital employed. This isn’t even a slag against corporations. People with capital are good at raising more capital, investing it, and taking more capital out. Corporate leaders are required by law to maximize returns to their investors. That’s the role of the corporate sector. Usually jobs are created when investments are made, but I assure you, it’s entirely inadvertent.

Which begs the question, "Why do corporate executives talk so much about jobs?" The answer, of course, is that people, especially citizens who live in the shadow of the plant or mill, are willing to trade off corporate profits for better environmental protection. If a CEO came out and said that they’d love to be better environmental stewards but that they wanted a 12% return on investment for their shareholders, the public backlash would be swift and brutal. So they talk about jobs.

The solution, therefore, is for citizens to see through the jobs rhetoric and pressure corporations to do what’s right for community prosperity and environmental protection. And to elect governments that will ensure that industry is conducted in such a way that maximizes those values. Clearly, there are many policy alternatives to achieving this. All we need is public and political will.

Thank you.