Construction on the Keystone XL pipeline has helped keep Emily Lai’s small family restaurant alive during months of COVID-19 lockdowns. The 90′s Restaurant, on Main Street in Oyen, Alta., has stayed afloat by serving takeout to hundreds of tradespeople who temporarily moved to the area to work on the project.
But now that the TC Energy Corp. pipeline has been halted, she said she and her husband are more anxious about the future of the Chinese and Western cuisine restaurant they have owned for nearly a decade.
“My husband is feeling sad, too, and worried about the business,” Ms. Lai said this week.
Many will argue that an Alberta-based push to complete the US$11.5-billion Keystone XL project was nothing more than wishful thinking once Democrat Joe Biden was elected U.S. President – because he promised in the campaign to address climate change, and to block the oil sands pipeline. But for many workers and business owners, the Canadian construction that began last year provided much-needed paycheques and cash flow in the midst of a weak Prairie economy.
The project would have been a key link between Alberta’s oil sands production and U.S. Gulf Coast refineries. But all construction was halted as soon as Mr. Biden’s office confirmed he would cancel the project. Some people who had come to Oyen to work on the Canadian leg of the trans-border pipeline started packing up on Wednesday morning, even before the new U.S. President had officially rescinded the Trump-era approval of the pipeline.
TC Energy says about 1,000 construction workers, in both Canada and the United States, have been or will be given layoff notices in the weeks ahead. The Calgary-based company has said the cancellation will eliminate the jobs of thousands of union workers at TC Energy contractors.
Some were employed by Michels Canada, which was awarded the contract to construct about 260 kilometres of the project in Alberta. No one from the company was immediately available for comment this week.
But one of the construction workers on the pipeline had been lodging at the home of Oyen Mayor Doug Jones. On Wednesday, Mr. Jones said his boarder – who usually left at 6 a.m. and returned at 7 p.m. – came home at 10 in the morning. The mayor of the town of 1,100 was worried there had been an on-site accident.
Instead, he said, the man explained to him that work was shutting down.
Nate Horner, the United Conservative Party MLA for the area, said “the mood is the entire spectrum – angry, frustrated, sad and just overall disappointment.”
The cross-border portion of the pipeline is completed. In the United States, work had begun on pump stations, but not the pipeline itself – due to a U.S. federal court ruling that the project needed a more thorough vetting for its impact on water resources and endangered species. In Canada, about one-quarter of the 530-kilometre length of the pipeline through southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan was finished.
Mr. Horner’s Drumheller-Stettler constituency contains almost the entire length of the Alberta portion. He said workers have come into the area from other parts of the province and other parts of the country. Mr. Horner said the pipeline was a project that would allow the stagnant provincial economy to grow again.
“It shows what Alberta does when Alberta is working,” he said. “It kind of reminded everyone of what used to happen here, and what could happen again.”
Terry Parker, executive director of Building Trades of Alberta, said the loss of the project is significant in many respects. Of the union umbrella group’s 60,000 members – including pipefitters, welders and electricians – about 30,000 are out of work. There was not only the jobs associated with construction of the pipeline, he said, but also the potential for work on maintenance of the pipeline and pump stations. And further down the line, there would have been work associated with increased capacity for bitumen production.
“It’s going to hurt our members out there,” Mr. Parker said. “These were good-quality jobs we were talking about.”
These job losses are politically charged. Late on Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talked with Mr. Biden, and again expressed Canada’s disappointment with the U.S. decision on the project. Earlier, he spoke to reporters to express sympathy for the difficulties workers in Alberta and Saskatchewan have faced in recent years.
But Mr. Trudeau also signalled his desire to move beyond the Keystone XL disagreement with the Biden administration, because there are many other areas where he wishes to collaborate with his new U.S. counterpart.
In Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney is facing criticism for his risky investment in the pipeline project – one that his government said this week could cost $1.5-billion in public money. At the same time, he’s calling for the federal government to continue to press the issue with the United States. If the Biden administration doesn’t change its mind, Mr. Kenney wants Ottawa to impose trade sanctions, or demand compensation. He’s unhappy the Liberal government has already punted the Keystone XL file into lost-cause territory.
Arguing that he’s on the side of Alberta workers, Mr. Kenney has also talked about stepping up his “fair deal” campaign of promoting Alberta autonomy – including his promise to hold a referendum on equalization this year, and look at creating a separate police force and provincial pension plan.
Mr. Horner, the MLA, said his constituents will be attuned to the federal government’s reaction. ”That Western alienation feeling – that’s not theoretical. And this certainly isn’t going to help.”
Back in Oyen, the mayor said he and many people are disappointed with the decision. Just days ago, when Mr. Jones looked down Main Street, trucks were parked all along its sides. But just a day after the project was officially axed, he said the street looked empty.
One Oyen business owner has told the mayor he was counting on the decision to be reversed. Mr. Jones said while he wishes that was true, the fact the new U.S. President gave the executive order on the very day he took office makes him think it’s unlikely.
“They haven’t realized,” Mr. Jones said. “And I don’t want to be the guy who says, ‘It’s not happening.’ "
We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.