Here in Ontario, you couldn’t escape the General Motors story this week. People here still think the auto industry is the backbone of our economy. So when GM announced that it was going to close its century-old plant in Oshawa, the entire national media rushed to the city in search of desperate auto workers (who, despite the hardship of being laid off, will probably pick up new jobs pretty quickly in Ontario’s job-rich economy). In a show of solidarity, Justin Trudeau even cozied up to his arch-nemesis, Doug Ford to express his sympathy – even though Mr. Ford effectively blamed Mr. Trudeau’s carbon tax for the GM closure.
My friends in Alberta are a little quizzical about all the fuss. Sure, they’re sympathetic. But unlike Ontario, Alberta has seen tens of thousands of well-paying jobs vaporize in the past few years. Nobody comes to interview those workers any more. “And all we get from the Trudeau Liberals is platitudes,” Jason Kenney, Alberta’s United Conservative Party leader, says.
To be sure, it’s easier for the media to focus on one big sad story than on a hundred smaller stories spread out over time. But the impact of the oil bust in Alberta is far greater than a single auto plant closing in Ontario. Today, because of Canada’s failure to get pipelines built, Alberta oil is selling for about US$12 per barrel , while West Texas Intermediate sits at about US$50 a barrel. To extract and ship costs more than it’s worth . Rock-bottom oil prices are already costing the industry $80-million to $100-million a day.
Alberta oil companies, most of them small and medium-sized, are hanging on by their fingernails. “Most of them can’t raise a dime in equity,” Mr. Kenney says in an interview. “Credit rating agencies are breathing down their necks. In the next few months we’re looking at waves of layoffs. If this carries on, it will be a financial catastrophe.”
Canada’s failure to get pipelines built looks ludicrous to outsiders. It is a policy-induced catastrophe that is directly attributable to the Trudeau government, which has killed and blocked new pipelines and tanker traffic at every turn. The owners of Trans Mountain threw in the towel earlier this year because the risk-reward ratio looked too uncertain. This forced Mr. Trudeau’s hand and Ottawa pitched in $4.5-billion to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline and terminal, leaving it our only remaining hope. For now, anyone who wants to build a pipeline in Canada should have his head read.
You’d think that a government so dependent on oil revenues would have a strategy to protect its greatest national asset. Instead, Mr. Kenney says, what Albertans see “is a government that seems deliberately trying to kill this industry in slow motion.”
In a desperate effort to get around the pipeline bottleneck, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has asked the Trudeau government to consider helping purchase rail cars and locomotives. She’s still waiting for an answer. “Ottawa is living on a different economic planet,” Alberta Finance Minister Joe Ceci commented.
While we’ve been busy blocking pipelines, the United States has been building pipelines at a furious pace. U.S. oil production next year is expected to be 28 per cent higher than in 2017.
Meanwhile, leaders such as Mr. Kenney – a self-proclaimed free-market conservative – are proposing quotas to cut back our own oil production in hopes of boosting prices. He says there’s no other option.
“Justin prattles on about growing the middle class,” Mr. Kenney gripes. “And it’s the energy sector that’s been the greatest grower of the middle class. And that’s all in jeopardy now.”
Back in Ontario, Mr. Trudeau made no signal that he would bail out GM. The Oshawa operation has an underused plant that makes outdated cars nobody wants. But the bigger story here is not GM – it’s Canada, and our ability to attract and retain industry.
And the answer is: We’re not nearly competitive enough.
“Canada is among the most expensive countries in the world to build cars and the highest-cost market for car assembly in the North American free trade zone,” the Wall Street Journal says. Maybe that helps explain why Germany’s luxury car-makers are stampeding into Mexico, where state-of-the-art plants are churning out BMWs, and bypassing us.
Mr. Trudeau should be trying to make Canada more attractive. Instead he keeps making it worse.
Don Walker, chief executive officer of Magna International, sees Canada going in the wrong direction. With 22,000 employees, it’s the largest automotive supplier in North America. According to Mr. Walker, carbon pricing, high electricity costs and labour costs are making it increasingly difficult to remain competitive against other jurisdictions that don’t face “all these burdens.”
“There is more to come,” auto consultant Denis DesRosiers warns. “I just don’t know which plants and when they will disappear.”
Fortunately, Mr. Trudeau doesn’t have to think about that now. He has jetted off to Argentina for the G20, where, he will fight for climate change and advance gender equality. Those are the subjects that really engage him. As for the middle class – they’ll just have to fend for themselves.