Why the NDP has it wrong on Keystone: Halting exports in favor of domestic jobs is disingenuous

To his credit, Alberta NDP leader Brian Mason has at least brought the increasingly cosmic debate over TransCanada Corp.'s Keystone expansion back to earth. Yesterday in the Calgary Herald, and again this morning on CBC Radio, Mason revived the old chestnut that bitumen exports undermine domestic job creation. In doing so, he artfully moved the conversation beyond the realm of fantasy so expertly occupied by Daryl Hannah and Superman's wife, err, Margot Kidder.

Labor groups and successive provincial governments have long argued that exporting raw bitumen sacrifices domestic jobs by discouraging construction of the multibillion-dollar mega-plants called upgraders. The plants, used to convert bitumen into synthetic crude oil, typically employ legions of tradespeople during construction. (More than 10,000 people worked on a recent expansion at Shell Canada Ltd.'s Scotford facility, for instance).

It makes sense for Mason to support building more of the plants. No politician in his right mind would argue against domestic job creation. And the pro-jobs, anti-export crowd is sure to grow in number and in volume as calls to put oil sands on global markets grow more acute.

Unfortunately, though, Mason, to say nothing of the Alberta Federation of Labour, ignores Alberta's own version of kryptonite. Whatever his bold pronouncements, the fact is there is a crippling paucity of men and women needed to wield hammers, fit pipe and weld steel in this province. Recall 2008-09, when the Industrial Heartland Region saw as many as seven or eight upgrader projects either shelved or permanently scrapped. Oil prices were a contributing factor, but labour constraints played no small role halting development.

Mason should know better. It's not exactly a secret that skilled tradesmen and women are in short supply. The oil sands are particularly pinched, of course – as recently as this week Employment and Immigration Minister Thomas Lukaszuk was in Texas and Illinois trying to rustle up extra bodies. Even conventional drillers are struggling to fill positions. "Right now everybody's basically short," Jerry Dawe, an instructor at Enform's Nisku campus, told me earlier this summer. "Manpower is just not there."

Halting Keystone in the vain hope that companies suddenly dust off blueprints for plants that require a massive capital investment (and don't always provide a commensurate return) is disingenuous. It's good politics, to be sure, so long as you don't dwell on the few hundred thousand workers needed to make the value-added vision a reality. Perhaps Mason could check Krypton. I understand the planet produces able-bodied workers.

Alberta Oil, Fri Sept 2 2011

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