Cross Country Checkup

Alberta's oilpatch workers anxiously await election results to see if pipeline will proceed

The prolonged slump in the oil and gas sector has left tens of thousands of Albertans unemployed, and the election question many are asking is whether the newly-elected federal government will finally get shovels in the ground on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

Oil and gas worker Tim Cameron says 'I'll go somewhere else' if new government stalls Trans Mountain expansion

For oil and gas workers in Alberta, the election question on many minds is whether or not the incoming government will be able to get shovels in the ground and build the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

Drayton Valley, Alta., is a land of pumpjacks and pickup trucks.

The town, about an hour's drive west of Edmonton, is known for its vast oilfields, which in boom times drew thousands of workers to live here.

It's a community built on energy, Tim Cameron is fond of saying, as he gazes out his kitchen window at two pipelines running through his property.

But these days, Cameron paints a grim portrait of Alberta's oilpatch woes comparing his once-thriving town to a scene out of The Walking Dead.

"It's just business after business hanging on by a thread," said Cameron, describing how bankruptcies and layoffs are forcing his neighbours to pick up and move away.

"They're really, really suffering."

Drayton Valley, Alta., resident Tim Cameron says for years he's been struggling to find work in Alberta's oil industry. (Submitted by Tim Cameron)

Cameron himself is feeling the pinch. An environmental technician in the oil industry, he was accustomed to working as many as 330 days a year. But not since 2014, when oil prices began tumbling.

Last year, with new oil and gas projects few and far between, he could only land 50 days of work.

"Nobody's making any decisions right now because it's 100 per cent based on what happens with this election," Cameron said.

The prolonged slump in the oil and gas sector has left tens of thousands of Albertans unemployed, and the election question many are asking is whether the newly-elected federal government will finally get shovels in the ground on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

"If we can't get it built," Cameron said, pausing.

"I'm not going to say that's the final nail in the coffin of our industry. But it's going to be very close."

Drayton Valley has been hit particularly hard by the oil slump in Alberta. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

Pipeline politics

The majority of Albertans fiercely support the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which will triple the line's capacity and increase oil tanker traffic on the British Columbia coast. 

But the project remains stalled by lawsuits and protests, and throughout the federal election campaign, the pipeline's future has been hotly debated.

Each of the parties has staked out a position on the Trans Mountain expansion — the Liberals and Conservatives support the expansion, while the NDP and Greens oppose the project.

Cameron's voice rises in frustration when he speaks of the campaign.

"If you don't build pipelines, if you don't drill wells — which is what the Greens and the NDP are saying — then in a very short amount of time, [Canadians] will be in a position where we have to import energy just to maintain the lifestyles that we have right now," he said.

Cameron maintains that Canadians opposed to pipelines don't understand the "unbelievably rigorous" environmental standards the oil industry must meet in Canada.

"It's suffocating. Actually, it's almost impeding industry, but it's there to protect the environment. And it's there so that we can continue to be world leaders in what we do," Cameron said.

However, the oil and gas sector remains Canada's largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, according to Government of Canada figures.

Changing energy landscape

The pipeline debate won't end unless industry and government work harder at reducing pollution, says Ed Whittingham, a Calgary-based environmentalist and former head of the Pembina Institute think-tank.

"While Albertans and Alberta companies are doing their best to drive down environmental intensity, it's still a challenging way of producing energy," Whittingham said in a phone interview.

It's high-cost and high-carbon at a time when the world is going toward low-cost and low-carbon sources of oil. And that's an inescapable fact.- Ed Whittingham, Calgary environmentalist and ex-head of Pembina Institute

"It's high-cost and high-carbon at a time when the world is going toward low-cost and low-carbon sources of oil. And that's an inescapable fact."

Whittingham is something of an outlier in the environmental movement: a proud Albertan who supports the Trans Mountain expansion — for both financial and climate reasons — a position which has earned him praise from oil and gas executives.

Environmentalist Ed Whittingham says Ottawa's approval of Trans Mountain is the right choice for Alberta and Canada. He insists environmentalists and the energy sector can find common ground, but only if average Albertans shift their thinking toward sustainability. (CBC)

However, he's also been vilified by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney as an "opponent of Alberta jobs" because Whittingham remains resolute in calling for environmentally-responsible growth of the oilsands.

"We can't rest on laurels and say, 'we've done a great job.' We still really have to keep working hard to drive down that carbon intensity and by extension, the price of it," Whittingham said.

Whittingham insists environmentalists and the energy sector can find common ground, but only if average Albertans shift their thinking toward sustainability.

"[Albertans] are not seeing where the puck is going.… They're not seeing this fuel switching that's happening in global energy markets," Whittingham said.

"Oil is going to be around, but there will be less of it consumed, and that's what I think people in this province have to realize. In a world where demand goes down and the price falls, you don't want to be sticking out like a sore thumb."

'I'll go somewhere else'

Back in Drayton Valley, Cameron reached a breaking point last year when "everything stopped" in his town's economy.

"These people who just want to go to work, that just want to run their businesses, they were walking around asking questions: what's happening?" he recalled.

Cameron and four other residents of Drayton Valley founded Rally Canada, a group advocating for pipelines to be built and more support for the energy industry.

The group has met with Premier Kenney about how to combat misinformation about the industry and organized pro-pipeline rallies across the province.

"That conversation needs to happen … in all the places where energy isn't in the forefront of people's minds because whether they realize it [or not], it's 100 per cent connected with just about everything they do," Cameron said.

Rally Canada, a group co-founded by Cameron, advocates for pipelines in Alberta. (Tim Cameron/Facebook)

On election night, Cameron says he'll be watching closely. The results may determine if he stays in Alberta.

"If we get a minority government that wants no Western Canadian energy, then I'll go somewhere else," Cameron said.

"I'm a father that has three growing children. Getting a full-time job in retail … doesn't provide me with a living or options for retirement."


With files from Samantha Lui

Cross Country Checkup will be live from both ends of the Trans Mountain pipeline, in Leduc, Alta., and Vancouver on the eve of the federal election.

About the Author

Duncan McCue

CBC host and reporter

Duncan McCue is host of CBC Radio One's Cross Country Checkup and a correspondent for CBC's The National. He reported from Vancouver for over 15 years, and is now based in Toronto. During a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 2011, he created a guide for journalists called Reporting in Indigenous Communities. Duncan is Anishinaabe, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation.

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