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Opinion Alberta’s workers never asked for this political pipeline paralysis

Paul de Jong is president of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA).

It wasn’t that long ago that the federal Liberal government took ownership of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, “to get it built in a timely fashion.” But now, while consultations with Indigenous communities continue, Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi can’t guarantee anything. “I’m very confident that by June 18, cabinet will be able to make a decision on this project," he said, with a heavy caveat: “I cannot commit to that because it’s not my decision. It’s the decision of the cabinet.”

Mr. Sohi, who hails from Edmonton, must know better than to string along Canadians and his own constituents. Last summer, when the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal by the city of Burnaby, he proclaimed that “not building the pipeline is not an option.” So where is that determination and conviction now, as he declines to promise a decision will be made before this fall’s federal election?

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The hypocrisy is numbing – and it’s one more kneecap to the companies, communities and workers who’ve staked their livelihood on keeping this project moving forward.

Canada is a leader in pipeline construction. We built one of the world’s first oil pipelines in 1862, stretching from Petrolia, Ont., to Sarnia. Since then our country and economy have been built on a network of more than 840,000 kilometres of pipelines, including the 1,150-kilometre Trans Mountain pipeline. Since the 1950s, it’s been safely transporting crude and refined oil from Edmonton to Burnaby, B.C., without much fanfare.

That is, until recently. Building a twin pipeline along the existing route has dragged into a nasty political drama. But for those on the front lines of this landmark project, the epic battle to get it built has become painfully personal. I know this because our members’ HR departments have been sounding the alarm bells for some time.

Nine major contractors are building the new pipeline, the majority of whom are represented by the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA). Our member companies recruited and hired thousands of skilled workers across Western Canada long before this political paralysis set in. These are husbands, moms and hockey coaches, who signed up for a steady paycheque they thought they could count on to put their kids through school and pay down their mortgages. Instead, legal challenges, obstruction by protesters and shameless politicking has resulted in construction delays and layoffs. Hundreds of thousands of good, highly qualified people now wait for work. The inevitable stress and uncertainty are breaking down marriages, contributing to mental-health concerns and leading to issues with drugs and alcohol. And for what? All because elected officials don’t have the backbone to get this pipeline built.

The end result has been continuing cease-and-desist orders that have stalled construction and frustrated contractors. Projects of this magnitude require considerable planning to build teams with unique skill sets, in jobs that range from engineering to estimating. With yet another construction season in jeopardy, more people will be sidelined. It’s impossible for contractors to get a handle on timing, pricing or staffing with so many uncertainties. But one thing is clear: with every passing day of delay, Canadians miss out. Analysts forecast that economic losses are anywhere from $40-million to $100-million every day. That includes the huge hit to contractors who’ve laid out millions in planning costs, built work camps that are empty and bought and transported pipeline materials that don’t get used. But it’s the human cost that’s harder to calculate when workers are let go, and can’t meet their financial commitments or cope with the uncertainty.

Twinning the Trans Mountain pipeline is an exhaustively engineered and safe project that will generate more than 800,000 person-years of employment from construction through to operation, inject billions into the economy and get our oil to international markets. It deserves a more audible cheering section from the home crowd. It’s about time that Canada – and the federal government in particular – showed the international business community and the Canadians who have been caught in purgatory for years, that it is capable of walking the walk and getting major projects built.

But right now, our leaders are waffling. And that just won’t cut it from a federal government that bought the pipeline project with $4.5-billion of our public tax dollars. The onus is on the government that owns it, to build it. Contractors signed up to build this pipeline and finish the job – it’s what we do. Now Ottawa needs to show us that they believe in it, and finish theirs.

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