Unemployment rates in northeast B.C. continue to trend below the provincial average, and while the region is not immune to the economic wallop of the COVID pandemic, it has a leg up that could provide a blueprint for recovery with benefits across the country.
Oil and gas development, primarily natural gas, continues to keep many in the region working, says Mike Whalley, executive director of the Fort St. John-based Resource Municipalities Coalition.
“Our unemployment rate on average for the last six months has been anywhere between three and five points lower than those to the west and those to the south of us in the province,” Whalley says.
“The reality is that the backbone of our economy and what happens to be generating the most direct and indirect jobs is oil and gas. The reason why we have the better economy is because we have the resource sector.”
According to Statistics Canada, for every direct job created in oil and gas, three indirect and two induced jobs are created in other sectors like manufacturing and accommodation.
The spin-off economy from oil and gas development is of central importance to Fort St. John mayor Lori Ackerman as she considers economic recovery for both northeast B.C. and Canada as a whole.
Ackerman is one of 21 advisors to the newly formed Task Force for Real Jobs, Real Recovery, which is putting together a set of recommendations for the federal government as it continues to develop pandemic recovery stimulus programs.
“The decision-makers really need to listen to the people who are out in the fields and working day in and day out, and they have been for decades, to bring our resources to market in a safe way. I think it’s an opportunity to really reset some mindsets about how our nation pays for itself,” she says.
So far the federal government has announced $227.9 billion in COVID-related support measures for 2021-21, according its most recent fiscal update. The report forecasts the Canadian economy will contract by a record 6.8 percent in 2020, followed by a massive federal budget deficit of $343.2 billion at the end of the fiscal year in 2021.
Oil and gas can help “turbo-charge” recovery, says a May 2020 report by the Vancouver-based Resource Works Society. But the sector needs some help, the report says, including that “a clear assertion must be issued by the Prime Minister and Cabinet that responsible development of natural resources is in the national interest.”
Task Force for Real Jobs, Real Recovery
Organized by Resource Works, the new task force has support of more than 25 industry associations, unions, professional groups and Indigenous organizations across the country.
This includes the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, Quebec Provincial Building Trades, and the Indigenous Resource Network. Together the task force represents over a quarter of a million businesses and over three million workers across Canada.
Collectively the group has “acknowledged that there is a need to get real jobs restarted and get a real economy moving along in Canada so that we can get back on track as soon as possible,” Ackerman says.
Innovation, LNG is Key
Muir says the task force is following an aggressive timeline to complete its recommendations by early August.
Canada has competitive advantages in resource development that he says should not only be maintained but also actively leveraged to help in the recovery effort. Chief among those is Canada’s resource base, its ability to innovate to improve environmental performance and lower costs, and its emerging liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry.
“We have significant opportunity to extract, produce and ship world-class LNG to other countries that are using more carbon-intensive energy sources. It’s an opportunity for our society to continue to enjoy the quality of life that we do as a result of our energy industry,” Ackerman says.
In addition to jobs and government revenues within Canada, LNG from B.C. is expected to help markets in Asia replace higher-emitting sources of energy.
Construction continues on the $18-billion first phase of Canada’s first entry into the global LNG industry, with 2,300 people currently employed on rotation at Kitimat, B.C. By the end of July, approximately 1,700 people are expected to be working constructing the Coastal GasLink pipeline, which will supply natural gas from northeast B.C. to the LNG Canada terminal.
Canada’s LNG opportunity could spark an employment wave that rolls across the country over the longer term, according to a new report by the Conference Board of Canada. In a scenario based on relatively conservative expansion of the industry, the Conference Board estimates that it could support 96,550 direct, indirect and induced jobs annually across the country between 2020 and 2064.
“Post-pandemic, the Canadian economy will need stimulus. An LNG industry brings long-term investment and production that can contribute to the country’s economic recovery,” the Conference Board says.
In Fort St. John, Mayor Ackerman is thinking about a wholistic approach to recovery across Canada.
“We need to get our industries running as completely as possible,” she says. “We need to encourage innovation in those industries and by doing that, other industries that may not have the ability to get kickstarted right away will follow suit.”