Nfld. & Labrador

'Time is now,' Trudeau told as N.L. leaders rally around clobbered oil industry

A diverse cross-section of political, industry and educational leaders united Tuesday to deliver a strong message to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about an oil industry that they say is in desperate need of federal help.

Premier calls on PM to offer a lifeline to a sector hit hard by pandemic

Premier Dwight Ball and Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady hosted a virtual news conference Tuesday to draw attention to the struggling oil and gas industry, and renew a call for emergency help from the federal government. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

In another sign of growing frustration and panic, political, industry, labour and education leaders who fear a collapse of the Newfoundland and Labrador oil and gas sector united Tuesday to deliver a plea for help from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his federal government.

That plea included an ominous prediction that repeated blows to the oil sector in recent months could result in the loss of nearly $61 billion in investments between now and 2038, unless quick action is taken.

"It's important that we get a signal from the federal government that they see offshore Newfoundland and Labrador as an option and something that has a future," said Premier Dwight Ball.

"We think we have a lot to contribute here," said Ball. "We have the resources, the people and we have the determination. The time is is now, and we are ready." 

At a virtual news conference Tuesday, Ball was joined by a variety of other speakers, including one who fears her career might be in jeopardy.

"It's looking pretty bleak for us," said Alison Rumbolt, who flies for Cougar Helicopters and one of only three female pilots working in the offshore.

Darin King is executive director with TradesNL, an umbrella group for 16 building trades unions in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Government of Newfoundland Labrador)

In an unusual move, Vianne Timmons, the new president and chancellor of Memorial University, weighed into the political debate.

Timmons said "so many of our engineers and faculty and students" are involved with the oil sector, and "we are very supportive."

She said the university is especially keen on initiatives to make the industry more environmentally friendly. "If it's important to Newfoundland, it's important to Memorial University," she said.

Voices need to be heard, Coady says

The industry is in dire need of financial incentives to ensure a future beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, say industry boosters, and avert a scenario where precious investment dollars are lured away to other countries.

"By having us here, you're seeing how critical is it that our voices be head in Ottawa," said Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady. "That our voices be heard with the prime minister. That our industry needs support and it needs it now."

Over the last three decades, growth in the oil industry has helped created a highly skilled, safety conscious and productive workforce, said labour leader Darin King, and "we cannot risk losing them."

Charlene Johnson is executive director with Newfoundland and Labrador's oil and gas industries association, known as Noia. She is helping lead a campaign to convince the federal government to provide emergency assistance to the industry. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

It's the latest pitch in an ongoing campaign to protect and grow an industry that has formed the backbone of the province's economy for nearly a quarter-century, and is now in crisis mode because of the pandemic.

Billions in spending on everything from exploration and construction has either been deferred or cancelled, with one of the four producing oil fields, Terra Nova, expected to be shut down for up to two years.

Plea intended for Liberal government

For an industry that directly employed roughly 6,700 people at the end of last year, and represented an average of 30 per cent of the province's economy between 2010 and 2017, inaction is not an option, said Charlene Johnson, CEO of the province's 500-member-strong oil and gas industry association, Noia.

"Our plea today is directly to the prime minister and members of his government," she said.

Of the 60 pilots working in Newfoundland and Labrador's offshore oil sector, only three are female, including Labrador's Allison Rumbolt, seen in this file image. (Gary Locke/CBC)

The virtual news conference was intended to show the wide level of support enjoyed by the industry, to lay out the many benefits that oil and gas has delivered to the province and country, and increase the pressure on Ottawa to deliver a lifeline in the form of exploration and tax incentives for oil companies who undertake important drilling campaigns.

The fear is that as companies slash capital spending, and jurisdictions compete for that shrinking pot of money, oil giants like ExxonMobil and Equinor will be lured away to countries like Norway and the United Kingdom by generous incentive programs.

The new president and chancellor at Memorial University, Vianne Timmons, took part in a virtual news conference Tuesday to lobby for federal help for the oil and gas industry. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

Canada has to compete, said Ball, in order to stem what he says is a growing exodus of investment, and painful cuts to the supply and service sector."We can't forget that when investment leaves, it takes our young families and skilled workforce with it," said Ball. 

The campaign to lobby support from Ottawa has been underway for weeks, but so far has not yielded any positive results.

Coady said both levels of government are talking regularly, and that requests for information from the province and industry have been answered, so there is "no misunderstanding of the value of this industry to the province and the country."

So what's the hold-up?

Ball said "the challenge for the prime minister is to make sure where this fits into the national narrative. But right now we as province are sending a message that time may not be a our friend."

CBC requested comment from federal Natural Resources Minister Seamus O'Regan, who is Newfoundland and Labrador's representative in the federal cabinet.

His office issued a statement Tuesday evening, commending the provincial government for its commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 in order to help stabilize global carbon emissions.

"Around the world, investors are increasingly looking for this commitment," the statement reads. "Newfoundland and Labrador has a good product to sell; a sweet, light crude with a fraction of the emissions."

The statement also provided background on earlier aid packages announced by the federal government, including liquidity packages that benefits many small and medium businesses in the oil industry, and a wage subsidy of 75 per cent for workers.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Terry Roberts is a journalist with CBC's bureau in St. John's.

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