Captains of industry and Alberta politicians are applauding Ottawa’s decisive decision to approve two oil pipelines.
Environmentalists, some municipal and First Nation leaders are decrying it as a betrayal.
Lost in this endless ping-pong match is the view of someone who sees the decision through a different lens: an unemployed oilpatch worker who considers himself an environmental steward but also needs a paycheque.
“I am excited by it. I’m hopeful that these things will go through and people will go back to work,” says Darren Kondrat, a geophysicist from Cochrane who lost his job earlier this year as exploration activity at his company evaporated.
“It’s going to make more projects economic so more people will be spending money … The bottom line is about 60 per cent of geophysicists are out of work, so any time more wells and more capital is spent, that’s a good thing.”
Kondrat is one of tens of thousands of oilpatch workers who’ve hit the unemployment ranks in the past two years because of an oil market collapse that has carved prices in half.
New oil pipelines will not put him or his colleagues back to work tomorrow.
Frankly, an agreement by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to curb production is more likely to lift commodity prices — oil jumped $4.21 Wednesday to close at US$49.44 a barrel — and bolster his short-term employment prospects.
But the country has dithered for years on approving pipelines.
The fact the industry really has only one major customer for its product — the United States — and the fact a steep price discount faces Canada’s heaviest grades of crude oil has cast a long shadow over the sector.
Why invest if you can’t get product to customers efficiently, or attain the best price possible?
With the federal Liberal government granting approval Tuesday to the $6.8-billion Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and the $7.5-billion Enbridge Line 3 replacement project — while rejecting the beleaguered Northern Gateway development — the gridlock has broken.
Yes, it may take years for these projects to work through legal challenges.
Yes, they face fierce pushback from opponents worried about the potential for leaks and increased greenhouse gas emissions.
Yes, commodity prices could side-swipe future decisions.
But finally, Ottawa agrees these projects are in the national interest, that large-scale energy infrastructure can be built safely and the country must get its natural resources to customers.
For Kondrat, a 48-year-old oilpatch veteran with two teenagers, the news is finally a “small ray of light.”
“I am an environmentalist, I love living in the country … so it’s important to me, too. But it’s important there is a balance,” he says.
“We are a resource economy and we need to somehow get our resources to market and build our country.”
Clearly, environmental concerns should not be ignored. However, many unemployed energy workers aren’t so sure pipeline opponents across the country understand how dire the situation is in the sector.
Unemployment in Calgary has topped 10 per cent. The job losses have been particularly acute for people working in the exploration side of the business, such as drillers and geophysicists.
The Line 3 project is expected to create 7,000 construction jobs.
Trans Mountain is projected to create 15,000 jobs during its construction and 440 permanent jobs per year once operating.
Some may scoff at the notion of a project like Trans Mountain creating fewer than 500 full-time positions versus their fears of an offshore tanker spill or pipeline leak.
But British Columbia Premier Christy Clark wasn’t about to have the economic impacts so easily dismissed when asked Wednesday about the employment implications.
“Construction jobs are real jobs for a lot of people,” she said in Vancouver.
In the coming days, Premier Rachel Notley will head to B.C. to face the heart of the opposition to the Trans Mountain project. She will talk about the economic benefits of pipelines and emphasize Canadians shouldn’t have to pit the environment against the economy.
“We shouldn’t be asking working people to choose between making a decent living and being secure in the future of the environment for their kids,” she said Wednesday.
That’s the kind of argument that resonates with people, like Kondrat, who have families, homes and bills to pay.
“At the end of the day, it costs a lot of money to live if you’ve got two teenage kids, one going to university and one going to high school,” he says.
“It starting to really bother me to see (my) bank account dwindling and there’s really no horizon yet. It’s frustrating.”
Workers like him aren’t asking for a handout and they’re not asking for pity — just a government that understands the importance of the energy sector and a public that realizes it’s better for Canadians to have jobs than not.
Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.
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