Labour groups critical of Harper’s oilsands comments

Recent election promises by Conservative Leader Stephen Harper focusing on oilsands irritated two labour groups fighting for Canadian job, and energy, security.

Both the national Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) Union and the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) claim Harper continues to ignore Canadian national energy security, and the jobs pouring out of the country.

Prohibiting bitumen exports to countries without equivalent emission reduction targets, and continuing to promote the development of northern pipelines to bring oil and gas to markets in Canada and throughout the world were among election promises for a re-elected Tory leadership.

"Throughout Canada?" questioned Dave Coles, national CEP president. "(Harper) refuses to even enter a debate about having a pipeline from western Canada to (refineries) ... in Sarnia and Montreal."

AFL president Gil McGowan added "if Stephen Harper was really concerned about keeping oilsands jobs in Alberta, then he would have talked about restrictions of unrefined bitumen to the United States. This promise won't do that."

What the promise will do is result in jobs continuing to flow south to the American midwest and Gulf coast along what McGowan has called a "bitumen superhighway."

All Harper's statement does is "enshrine a continental energy system" with U.S, in the role of upgrader and refiner, and Alberta as "low value extractor."

Calling the promise a "shell game," he added Harper seems to be offering something to working people here in Alberta, but when you look deeper, there's really nothing there."

Acknowledging the lack of details, Greg Stringham, Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers vice president, said when the new government starts taking its election platform into policy, "that will be when it's critical to get more detail of what they really mean by this."

He noted while Canada already upgrades two-thirds of the oil from Canadian oilsands, significant cost increases are a real concern for upgrader operations.

"You can see that with a number of proposals out there that are struggling with their costs. For us, that's the real focus right now," he explained. Four upgraders are currently operating including Suncor Energy and Syncrude Canada with capacity of upwards of one million barrels a day. There are 13 proposals for upgrader expansions and stand-alones in various stages of construction or regulatory approval.

All tolled, that will give the province some 3.5 million barrels a day of upgrading capacity, however, some plans have been deferred due to costs.

Instead of protecting Canadian jobs and resources, Coles maintained Harper is demanding and encouraging more exports of raw bitumen. "I was in Louisiana (in April) when he talked to the world about improving American energy security. It's classic Orwellian double speak."

The day before Harper made his announcement, BA Energy shelved plans for an upgrader in Fort Saskatchewan, east of Edmonton. On the day of Harper's announcement, EnCana and ConocoPhillips announced an expansion of their join of a coker and refinery at their joint project in Illinois.

"I think this is a real push to expedite the bitumen to the U.S." said Coles, noting there continues to be no pipeline to eastern Canada.

The labour advocate is also questioning the National Energy Board, which approves pipeline applications. He even goes so far to believe there is a case for a mandamus application before the courts because the board isn't living up to its mandate.

"They're just rubber stamping the expansion of this (flow) of resources to the United States without any concern for public interest," he maintains.

A mandamus is a superior court writ ordering, in this case, a public body to perform a specified duty.

"We're beside ourselves. We've tried everything to get Harper to at least consider the public interest," Coles said.

With upgrading and refining continuing its southbound trend coupled with the world economy's downward spiral, Coles predicts that in the medium- to long- term, Alberta will end up the big loser because it won't have the upgrading jobs, but will have the pollution.

With jobs disappearing from Ontario's shrinking manufacturing sector, Coles points out if the refineries and upgraders were built in Ontario and Quebec instead of the U.S., "the Canadian job spin off in eastern Canada, including back to Alberta, are enormous."

McGowan also recognized the strengthening U.S. grip. By saying he will only allow bitumen exports to country with higher standards for greenhouse gas emissions, Harper is essentially saying only the U.S. will be eligible to receive bitumen.

"In a sense he's enshrining the status quo, which is not good enough when that status quo is exporting literally hundreds of thousands of barrels of bitumen to the American midwest and Gulf Coast every day," he said.

Fort McMurray Today, Wed Oct 8 2008
Byline: Carol Christian

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