Edmonton

Work camp ban a step in the wrong direction, oilsands advocate says

A controversial moratorium on oilsands work camps will stress workers, create new hurdles for industry — and could even have unintended consequences for the region, says an industry advocate.

'A moratoriums on camp is essentially a moratorium on oilsands development'

Noralta camp near Fort McMurray houses oilsands workers. (Synergy West Development Corp.)

A controversial moratorium on oilsands work camps in the Fort McMurray area is a setback that will stress workers, create new hurdles for industry — and could even have unintended consequences for the region, says an industry advocate.

On Monday night, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo council unanimously supported a motion that would deny camp permits within 75 kilometres of Fort McMurray's urban centre.

The moratorium applies to approval of new camps as well as the renewal of permits for existing camps.

"A moratorium on camps is essentially a moratorium on oilsands development and really doesn't encourage collaboration between industry and the RMWB," Karim Zariffa, executive director the Oil Sands Community Alliance, said Tuesday on CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"Any moratorium is a roadblock and our sector is already grappling and competing for capital," he said. "We feel it's not a good move."

More than 27,000 workers in 61 camps will be affected by the moratorium, which does not apply to camps inaccessible by road or camps needed for construction and maintenance.

The 75-kilometre radius is smaller than the original 120-kilometre proposal but Zariffa hastened to clarify that council's definition of zone is "as the crow flies," which can be significantly different than getting there by vehicle.

Karim Zariffa is executive director of the Oil Sands Community Alliance. (David Thurton/ CBC)

Most of the projects offer busing to and from the work sites, he said, but some people will choose to drive.

Many workers do 12-hour shifts, not including their commutes.

"Worker safety is a critical component for my members," Zariffa said about the Fort- McMurray-based association, which represents 15 industry members with assets in the Athabasca oilsands area.

"The general rule of thumb is a 60-minute drive or less after a shift is in that safe zone. So this has the potential to be substantially further than that because, again, they used 'as the crow flies' and, obviously, we have to drive."

The key rationale behind the moratorium, originally proposed by Mayor Don Scott, was to get the oilsands to employ more locals and encourage workers to move to the community.

The motion, which will be drafted into a bylaw that still needs approval from council, directs the administration to review agreements with oilsands companies, to work with industry to reduce fly-in fly-out, and increase use of the Fort McMurray airport instead of bypassing it and using isolated aerodromes.

Zariffa told CBC News the motion both ignores the progress that has been made and is unrealistic about benefits to the community.

He said that during 2017-18, a period when the economy was mostly in a downturn, more than 2,800 people from within the region were hired while the camp population decreased by about 15 per cent.

As well, Zariffa pointed to statistics recently offered by RMWB administrators which showed the city would not be able to accommodate an influx of workers or replace the tax benefits if the camps close.

Camps within a 120-kilometre radius of Fort McMurray contribute $14.4 million annually in tax revenue. The municipality would need to increase its tax base by 12,000 new homes to replace it.

It's not yet known what the tax implication is for the amended 75-kilometre zone.

"There's also lots of jobs opportunities that are going to be lost," Zariffa said.

There could also be a backlash to the Fort McMurray airport, he added.

"A large proportion of the passenger traffic at the Fort McMurray airport is going to be lost because at least eight projects utilize that airport exclusively."

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