Last week U.S. lawmakers decided that President Barack Obama must make a decision sooner than he wanted to on construction of the $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline, which would deliver bitumen — thick, tarry oil — from northern Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
Obama is concerned about environmental consequences. But here in Alberta, Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, is alarmed about something else.
“We’re sending jobs down that pipeline. Not just Alberta jobs but jobs for all Canadians,” McGowan said during an interview.
If we were to build more upgraders and refineries here instead of exporting raw bitumen, adds McGowan, thousands of workers would be needed for both the operation and maintenance of those industrial projects.
Needless to say, McGowan’s plea is not getting much attention from either the Alberta or federal government. They want to export the bitumen as soon as possible. Not just to refineries on the Gulf Coast but to China with a pipeline that would cross northern B.C.
And yet it was only five years ago that Premier Ed Stelmach promised to keep more bitumen upgrading jobs in Alberta.
“Shipping raw bitumen is like scraping off the topsoil, selling it, and then passing the farm on to the next generation,” Stelmach said in 2006 when he was running for the leadership of the Conservative party. “What value does it have?”
Despite that promise, stats compiled by the Energy Resources and Conservation Board reveal that the province’s upgrading capacity will not keep pace with the extraction of bitumen from the oilsands. The ERCB estimates that by 2018, only 52 per cent of the bitumen leaving Alberta will be upgraded. Stelmach had promised 75 per cent by the same year.
In his day, premier Peter Lougheed was determined not to export natural gas from the province without first stripping it of compounds that could be used in an Alberta-based petrochemical and plastics industry. Conservatives today would likely condemn his interventionist policies but they succeeded in keeping highly technical and well-paying jobs in the province.
Oilsands producers and politicians now argue that it is not economically viable to build more upgrading capacity than is already in place or planned.
Gil McGowan doesn’t buy those arguments.
“If we let the market decide, the market will simply send our jobs down the pipeline,” he said. “It’s small, short-term thinking.”
McGowan agrees that oilsands expansion is already faced with a labour shortage. But he says that wouldn’t be the case if the government staggered expansion instead of letting dozens of projects go ahead at once. Something else that Lougheed has also called for.
There’s no question that McGowan and the AFL stand to gain if more upgraders and refineries are built in Alberta. It’s much easier to organize a union in an industrial plant than it is in an oilfield, where workers are fewer and more transient.
He’s also well aware that most of the oil and gas industry in Alberta is not unionized. Unlike B.C. or Ontario, for example, where unions have a strong influence in key industries, labour in Alberta is not considered a major player.
So much so that when McGowan, who was a journalist before becoming a labour leader, requested observer status at the recent premiers’ conference on energy issues held near Calgary, the Alberta government turned him down.
Only through the intervention of contacts in the federal government and other provincial governments did he finally get permission to sit with observers from industry and environmental groups.
Gil McGowan may not be popular in Alberta but he’s certainly on the money when it comes to reminding Conservative politicians of the promises they once made and now have conveniently forgotten.
Toronto Star, Mon Aug 1, 2011
Byline: Gillian Steward