Americas

Feds torn between moving toward cleaner energy or bailing out oil and gas sector

Canada’s oil producers could only sit and watch as the price of their product plummeted last month to less than what it costs to buy a litre of soda, hit by the double whammy of a COVID-19-induced drop in global demand and a production war between Russia and Saudi Arabia that flooded the market with more oil it didn’t need.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday his government is looking for a way to help. But it is also clear any aid package is being influenced by the push-pull the Liberals have long felt between one of Canada’s most influential economic sectors and an environment movement which sees this as Canada’s opportunity to move away from fossil fuels once and for all.

Trudeau’s promise came nine days after Finance Minister Bill Morneau said an aid package for the oil sector was “hours, potentially days” away. Morneau’s office would not say Friday how many hours Morneau actually meant.

Keith Stewart, an energy strategist with Greenpeace Canada, said a delay in the package is a good thing, because it would be a lot easier and faster to pump out a bailout of loans and aid to companies than it would be to find innovative ways to fund workers through a transition to greener pastures.

Greenpeace is among a number of national environment organizations demanding no cash be spent to help oil companies.

“Doing it right is more complicated than doing it fast,” he said.

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He is hopeful any direct aid to companies will be tied to their willingness to show business plans in line with Canada’s climate targets. Anything else should help workers who need to know they can pay their mortgages and put food on the table while they retrain for new jobs in clean energy or environmental remediation.

An investment to clean up Alberta’s orphan wells was promised by Morneau on March 18, and was expected in the federal budget which has now been delayed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Conservative energy critic Shannon Stubbs said she too wants to see the investments focus on people, but in a way that bridges them and their companies to get back to producing oil. Stubbs said every day constituents in her Alberta riding are calling terrified for their future. Jobs are disappearing and the spinoff impact across her riding’s economy is profound.

She is worried that the delay is caused by a disagreement similar to the one around the Liberal cabinet table earlier this year about whether to approve a massive new oilsands mine in Alberta. The Frontier mine was ultimately shelved by the company before a decision was made, but there were open disagreements among Liberals about whether to approve it.

Trudeau would not tip his hand on any timing or content of the aid package in the works, though he said it was part of the conversation he had with premiers Thursday during a first ministers’ teleconference call. Trudeau said some of the already announced COVID-19 aid is open to oil companies and workers too.

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