Energy Minister Brian Jean blasts industry reliance on transient workers, camps

“I’m so proud of our industry and so ashamed of the major players. Their efforts towards community building is shameful,” Jean said in an interview.

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Alberta Energy and Minerals Minister Brian Jean says oil companies rely too much on transient workers, and the work camps housing this mobile labour force hurts nearby communities.

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The topic is common in the local politics of Fort McMurray, which Jean represents in the legislature. But Jean says using commuter workers hurts cities and towns across Alberta, regardless of the industry. When workers are housed temporarily in work camps instead of settling locally, Jean said Alberta and municipalities lose billions of dollars in tax revenue, housing and retail opportunities.

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“I’m so proud of our industry and so ashamed of the major players. Their efforts towards community building is shameful,” Jean said in an interview. “We need to make sure that that we take care of the people that we serve and are here in Alberta. If you want to become an Albertan, it’s very easy move here and work here.”

Jean’s comments come after Suncor Energy cut 1,500 positions this year, with many of those workers based out of Fort McMurray. Chief executive Rich Kruger said Suncor will continue to look for areas to trim as part of a wider efficiency push, and is growing its fleet of autonomous trucks to 31.

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During a visit to Imperial Oil’s Kearl facility, Jean said he met with 16 people and none of them had mortgages in Fort McMurray. One person rented in the city and three people left Fort McMurray for B.C. as the company prioritized camp workers. A spokesperson said the size of the transient workforce fluctuates, but confirmed most workers at Kearl commute.

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An aerial view of PTI Beaver River Executive Lodging oilsands work camp near Fort McKay, Alta. on June 18, 2013. Ryan Jackson/Postmedia Network Photo by Ryan Jackson /Edmonton Journal

Housing people in temporary work camps is common in the oilsands, but Jean insists the issue is not limited to Fort McMurray. The impacts work camps were having on Lac La Biche were a top complaint Jean heard at a recent open house. Temporary work camps are also a staple in other mining and agricultural industries, which also concerns Jean.

“That’s what I call free riders and there’s a lot of free riders that do not live in Alberta and are not Albertans but yet take our money and our jobs, and pay taxes in other jurisdictions. That needs to stop,” he said. “It’s ridiculous that our housing prices are what they are and the price of oil is what it is. Some shareholders should reflect on which companies have long-term plans on how to build communities.”

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Locally, Jean blamed Fort McMurray’s plunging housing prices on work camps. Compared to November 2022, the Alberta Real Estate Association says the total residential average price in Fort McMurray last month dropped by 11 per cent.

The 2021 census for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo reported there were 27,313 workers staying in 68 camps spread out across the region. The census also reported 2,358 transient workers renting in Fort McMurray.

Work camps are a polarizing topic in Fort McMurray’s local politics. Former mayor Don Scott proposed halting construction of new work camps within 120 kilometres of Fort McMurray in 2018. The proposed radius shrank to 75 kilometres, but the motion was killed in a tie vote in June 2019. Mayor Sandy Bowman and current councillors have not resurrected the issue.

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Oilsands companies argued the camps are necessary because there are safety concerns with driving long distances after 12-hour shifts. They also said some companies prioritized hiring locally but failed to find anyone. Supporters of Scott’s motion made many of the comments made by Jean in this interview.

“We’ve heard from plenty of sources that the camps are just not good environments. It’s not good for divorces, it’s not good for crime or civil problems,” he said. “We need to be weaned off the camps in a way that industry doesn’t suffer. But it’s time to focus more on building communities and building infrastructure in communities rather than building oilsands work camps.”

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