Asking for public dollars Shareholders profit while Albertans foot the bill

The only thing climbing higher than Alberta’s unemployment rate is the audacity of the corporations responsible for the layoffs.

A group of those corporations gathered last month and commanded a full mainstream media news cycle, demanding that Premier Rachel Notley shift course and adopt the failed policies of the previous Progressive Conservative (PC) government. It is true that 80,000 Albertans have lost work since the New Democratic Party (NDP) was elected last May. However, the party has nothing to do with the inability or refusal of the oil industry or the previous PC provincial government to prepare for the inevitable downturn in oil prices.

The 15-member coalition, which included the anti-union Merit Contractors Association, appeared to have been spearheaded by the Alberta Enterprise Group, an organization created from the ashes of Mark Norris’s unsuccessful campaign to lead the PCs in 2006. His platform included a vow that Alberta should separate if a future federal government brought in a carbon tax. These people should be ignored, not encouraged.

To be clear, jobs matter and when companies face hardship, people suffer. But let’s not forget that these are the companies which, when oil is $100 a barrel, lure workers here from across Canada and around the globe, putting a strain on housing and causing inflation for everyone, whether or not we reaped the benefits of the boom. These companies ride the wave of high oil prices and when oil prices fall, dump workers while protecting their shareholders’ dividends.

This is why the list of corporations extends beyond the signatories to that ridiculous letter.

Take Suncor, for example. Shortly before CEO Steve Williams met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Premier Rachel Notley and other industry executives to ask for help in February, Williams told industry analysts his company had “significantly overachieved and took over 1,900 people out” last year while still protecting its dividend to shareholders. Considering Williams claimed, when launching his hostile takeover bid for Canadian Oil Sands last fall, to be sitting on cash and credit of approximately $12 billion and a “fortress balance sheet,” his request for public dollars puts him and Canada’s biggest oil producers on the list of the audacious. They have access to a significant amount of money while continuing to pay shareholders’ dividends. Meanwhile, the workers they’ve laid off deplete their savings and their employment insurance benefits, with many forced onto social assistance. This makes calls for the government to slash services in order to balance its budget ludicrous.

And let’s acknowledge the Petroleum Services Association of Canada, which went to the federal government last month to ask for up to $500 million to clean up decommissioned oil wells. The association said taxpayers should be on the hook to clean up this mess because economic circumstances and increased costs due to increased regulations have caused this work to be delayed or postponed.

No explanation was offered as to what delayed the work when companies were reaping profits. Nor did any reporter ask these industry representatives what happened to the $30 million Stephen Harper’s Conservative government handed to industry to clear the backlog of orphaned wells during 2009’s economic downturn.

What is clear is that we’re going to be on the hook to clean it up.

Last April, before the provincial and federal elections, the CBC reported that 540 wells had been abandoned in the last year, bringing the total of orphan wells to 702, quadruple of the previous year. The most recent figure, released by the Orphan Well Association in February, is 693. The provincial government has expressed hesitance to use public money to clean up the mess, but it seems inevitable.

Nobody knows when this downturn will end, but one thing is certain: the people who didn’t share the profits in good times are not going to be sharing the pain now. Premier Rachel Notley would be best to ignore their calls to go back to the PC way of governing. To do so and hope for a different outcome is, as Einstein told us, the definition of insanity.

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