Albertans dealing with steep discount prices for oil expressed frustration Thursday with Ottawa’s fiscal update that they say offered little acknowledgment of pain in the oilpatch.
But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in Calgary he hears the “concerns and the fears” Albertans are expressing.
“I know how difficult the situation is right now for Albertans, how worried people are,” said Trudeau. “This is a very difficult context right now with the (oil price) differential being where it is, piled on top of years of struggling with low oil prices.”
Watch below: When asked what his plan was to address Alberta’s economic concerns, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters his government is working “hand in hand” with industry but said refinery shutdowns and overseas oil prices are beyond his government’s control.
Despite increases in world oil prices over the past year, prospects for more activity in the Canadian oilpatch are limited, according to the 2019 drilling forecast issued by the Canadian Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors on Thursday morning.
It predicts an increase of only 51 wells to about 7,000 next year compared with 2017, as price discounts discourage spending on exploration. The industry drilled about 13,000 wells in 2014 before global oil prices crashed.
LISTEN: Joel Senick joins Rob Breakenridge from protests outside of a Calgary hotel where Justin Trudeau was speaking
“Other industries in the same situation would be holding their hands out for a government bailout. Yet instead our industry has only asked for government permission and support to get our products to market,” said association president Mark Scholz at a morning event.
“The lack of action and attention by the federal government to this pressing issue is deafening.”
He criticized Ottawa for failing to put in place measures to allow the building of oil export pipelines needed to win better prices in Alberta.
Premier Rachel Notley, the keynote speaker at the event, said Trudeau would likely hear a great deal of frustration as he gave a speech to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce and met with oil and gas company CEOs on Thursday.
Watch below: Some are calling it a national crisis – the plummeting price of bitumen having a serious impact on our economy. There have been calls for the province to act and on Monday the premier announced her plan.
“There are a lot of folks here who would be forgiven for saying, ‘Gee, if there were this kind of economic crisis going on in the manufacturing sector in Ontario, we’re pretty sure it would make its way into the first two paragraphs of the fiscal update.’ Yet it didn’t find its way into the first two paragraphs,” she told reporters.
“I think that Ottawa needs to be seized of the matter and I suspect they will be by the end of the prime minister’s day here today.”
Trudeau said later Ottawa is addressing Alberta concerns by buying the Trans Mountain pipeline and its expansion project for $4.5 billion last summer and by continuing to try to get the expansion built after the Federal Court of Appeal struck down its NEB approval in August.
He added the fiscal update’s announcement of accelerated capital cost allowances to permit quicker tax writedowns of machinery and equipment was suggested in meetings with Alberta’s oilsands industry.
LISTEN: Minister Amarjeet Sohi joins Calgary Today to discuss the challenges Alberta faces and how the federal government plans to help
But the federal move announced Wednesday stops short of what the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers wanted to be able to compete for capital with the United States, said Ben Brunnen, vice-president of oilsands operations and fiscal policy.
“They introduced 100 per cent deductibility for manufacturing as well as for clean tech, but for oil and gas, they really just made some adjustments,” he said.
“It’s not as good of a news story as we’d like. Because we don’t think it’s necessarily enough to move the needle to drive investment back into Canada.”
On the market access issue, Brunnen said he heard “absolute silence” in the update.
“Their silence on their commitment to supporting the industry resonates with investors in a negative way,” he said.
The faster tax writeoffs are great but they won’t help an industry that isn’t very profitable right now, pointed out Jack Mintz, president’s fellow at the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary.
“The accelerated capital cost allowance doesn’t matter with differentials where they are because nobody’s going to spend any money,” said Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. executive vice-chairman Steve Laut following an energy-boss roundtable with the prime minister.
Laut said Trudeau seemed to appreciate how dire the situation is and was receptive to ideas. But Laut said he’s skeptical a federal investment in crude-by-rail, as the Alberta government has urged, would deliver swift relief.
“I don’t know what more the federal governments can do that companies ourselves can’t do,” Laut said.
“Getting (rail) cars is tough to do. It takes time to build these things.”
Alex Pourbaix, CEO of Cenovus Energy Inc., agreed Ottawa’s ability to help narrow the price gap is limited.
“I think the issue that we’ve all been debating is more of a provincial issue,” he said. “It’s very tough for the federal government to solve that one for us.”
Watch below: The president of Alberta Chambers of Commerce runs down the economic winners and losers of the federal economic update. Ken Kobly calls for an “adult conversation” about an Alberta sales tax.
At an event in Ottawa on Thursday morning, Finance Minister Bill Morneau pledged to be “relentlessly focused” on long-term solutions to the “acute issue” of oil price discounts.
Alberta has called on Ottawa to help increase crude-by-rail shipments. On Thursday, Notley said the province is willing to go it alone to buy trains to add between 120,000 and 140,000 barrels per day of oil export capacity if the federal government isn’t willing to help.
That capacity would be in addition to current record levels of crude-by-rail shipments, she added. The National Energy Board reported Wednesday exports reached about 270,000 bpd in September.
Asked about the rail request, Morneau said pipelines are his preference, vowing to continue to push to build the Trans Mountain expansion.
–With files from The Canadian Press’ Andy Blatchford and Lauren Krugel