Labour federation warns jobs will head south

Though some herald the job creation resulting from Imperial Oil's decision to go ahead with its Kearl project, the Alberta Federation of Labour warns the long-term benefits will be shipped south to the U.S. job market.

"Looking at the Stelmach government's unwillingness to stake more aggressive action to oilsands jobs in the province, it's hard not to conclude that they're simply afraid to stand up to big energy companies," said federation president Gil McGowan yesterday. "It's clear to everyone who has been paying attention that more and more oilsands jobs are being shipped down the pipeline, even the premier himself admits that it's a problem but so far he hasn't been willing to come to the table with any real plan to turn things around."

And that, he adds, is a big concern for Albertans, especially during an economic downturn when jobs are continuing to disappear.

What makes this potential job loss more irksome for McGowan is that the number of people applying for employment insurance in the Fort McMurray area has tripled compared with this time last year.

In Alberta, the number of regular EI beneficiaries climbed by 32.1% to 42,200 in March, marking the fastest monthly increase for the province since comparable data are available, according to Statistics Canada. For March, some 720 people in Wood Buffalo applied for EI, compared with 240 in March 2008. Provincewide in Alberta, the drop in employment in recent months has mostly hit construction, trade, manufacturing and professional, scientific and technical services.

Pius Rolheiser, Imperial Oil spokesman, doesn't share McGowan's job loss concern, saying Imperial has a different view.

"I don't think we're exporting any jobs," he said this morning. "We are, in fact, creating hundreds of long-term jobs, not to mention the thousands of short-term jobs."

When all three phases of Kearl are operating, Rolheiser predicts the permanent direct workforce to number upwards of 1,000 people, not to mention the spinoff indirect employment. It's long been Imperial's position that economic efficiency and market forces should be the critical factors in determining where upgrading capacity is built, he said.

"We've never believed it's realistic to decide where upgrading capacity should be built, ignoring economic efficiency in the market," said Rolheiser.

He acknowledged Imperial's Strathcona refinery, the company's largest, is geared towards lighter sweet crude, and has limited conversion capacity making it inappropriate for the Kearl heavier crude.

While no upgrader is related to Phase 1 of Kearl, Rolheiser noted decisions on upgrading of future phases have yet to be made.

McGowan says it's easy enough for companies to say "let the market decide," but it's clear that the market is deciding to send Alberta jobs down the pipeline to places like the American midwest and Gulf Coast.

"So the question I have is, when is the Stelmach government going to step up and realize that decisions being made by these big energy companies are not being made in the best interests of Albertans?" he said. McGowan added it's time for some serious government intervention and if the Conservatives can't get their heads around that, then Albertans are going to have to start looking for some other party that can.

"It was one thing to be dismissive of concerns about shipping jobs down the pipeline when the economy was booming, but now that the economy has fallen into recession, and more and more people are losing their jobs, it's completely unacceptable for us to ignore this problem yet our governments at both the provincial and federal levels continue to give us nothing but lip service."

McGowan admits he's afraid the Kearl project is a sign of things to come and "frankly it's a troubling sign. If we continue going down the road that Kearl is leading us, what we're looking at in the future are oilsands projects that are primarily about extraction as opposed to upgrading and refining. And that's really troubling because upgrading and refining are where the real jobs are."

Gordon Wong, also an Imperial spokesman said yesterday Kearl will create thousands of jobs during the construction phases with "multiple hundreds of well-paying jobs" for operations post-construction. He added phase one of the project is a significant size.

"Our application number was about 3,000 but I have seen 4,000," he said. "It would depend on the various stages, so it is in the thousands in terms of peak construction operational number .. is between (500) and 700."

With a mine life of an estimated 40 years for phase one, Wong noted "these aren't one or two years of construction then they're gone forever. These will be there for 40 years."

Fort McMurray Today, Thurs May 28 2009
Byline: Carol Christian

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