When faced with a governance challenge, it is always practical to look to other jurisdictions with similar challenges to see what research has been done and actions have been taken. While every community is unique, there is always something that can be learned from these situations and applied to the here and now.
In a recent Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo council meeting discussing the proposed camp moratorium, some of the speakers, including elected officials, referred to a 2015 report commissioned by the Queensland, Australia government entitled “FIFO: A Review.”
As the title suggests, this report analyzed the concerns that Australian residents were raising about the perceived negative impact FIFO was having on local communities, and our speakers in council outlined how there are similar concerns in the RMWB.
While there are some useful recommendations in the report which set out a framework for the local government to establish conditions for projects that would encourage more local hiring and procurement, there are also some important warnings and caveats in the report that were overlooked by the speakers in council.
First of all, the issues in each jurisdiction are not quite the same. Communities in Queensland were motivated by “strong opposition to resource companies specifying predominantly non-resident operational workforces for activities located within safe travelling distance of their communities.”
In Queensland there were two projects with nearly 100 per cent non-resident workers. In contrast, oilsands operations in the RMWB, depending on the location, have between five per cent to 95 per cent of their employees living in the RMWB, and none that specify that workers must come from elsewhere.
In fact, in the last two years during a downturn, OSCA members have hired more than 2,800 people in RMWB; 90 per cent of them being RMWB residents while the remaining 10 per cent relocated to the region. Moreover, according to the RMWB census, project accommodation population has decreased by 15 per cent from 2015 to 2018.
The communities in Queensland also complained of negative economic impacts coming from these operations. However, the report also recognized the positive impacts and significant long-term business opportunities resource projects bring.
A fly-in fly-out workforce provides a buffer for the community from the shocks of resource swings. In the upswing, building camps and transporting workers was a condition for approval, since the community could not sustain the influx of workers.
In the downturn, the camps lost far more of its workers than the community; had all our workers lived in RMWB, we would have 15,000 more people and their families either out of work or leaving the community.
A crucial element highlighted in the Queensland report is what is considered a “safe travelling distance.” There was considerable debate during the RMWB Council meeting on this topic, and council’s current amended motion uses a radius of 75 km, as the crow flies, for the proposed camp moratorium.
The use of a radius is not reasonable, because the time it actually takes to get to the worksite by vehicle is what is relevant, and the sites within the current 75 km as the crow flies radius can take over two hours to drive one way in clear conditions.
Keeping in mind this report had no winter driving conditions to contend with, being conscious of worker safety and the danger of imposing long commutes it declares any worksite more than 45 minutes from the community entirely out of scope for any of its recommendations.
The most important recommendation to note in the Queensland report reflects the biggest concern OSCA has, which is the respect for regulatory certainty.
The fourth recommendation in the report begins with an important caution: “In the interest of maintaining a competitive environment and minimizing sovereign risk for Queensland’s resource sector, it is recommended that no retrospective action that would impact upon the existing workforce be taken to alter existing approvals in Queensland.”
The recommendation then adds that legislative and policy tools should be considered for projects with 100 per cent FIFO workforce to allow workers the choice to live locally, as we have noted all oilsands operations in the RMWB already have local employees, continue to hire them and provide potential employees the option to live in the region.
As we know, the energy sector in Canada is facing dire competitiveness challenges affecting the ability to attract investment.
Some of this is certainly a result of falling commodity prices due to limited market access and technological innovations boosting supply elsewhere, but much of the challenges stem from our provincial and federal governments regulatory requirements, and the uncertainty that comes from threats of further changes.
We should all be mindful from the Queensland Report’s authors that creating new conditions for existing approvals would “hinder the future development of Queensland’s rich and abundant resources.”
At a time when the oilsands sector is anticipating its fifth consecutive year of declining capital investment, the last thing Alberta and our community needs right now is more uncertainty for existing and future projects, especially coming from our municipal government in RMWB.
In light of this, we encourage council to withdraw the proposed moratorium on camp facilities in the RMWB.