Representatives of Canada’s oil and gas industry like to talk about jobs and all the people they employ. In particular, Tim McMillan, who represents all the oil and gas industry as CEO of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, seems to talk about jobs at every opportunity. Jobs his industry has created. Jobs supposedly at risk from government policy. And yet oil companies are working hard to eliminate work done by actual people.
There’s even a term for it, popularized by Cenovus Energy executive-VP Kiron McFadyen : “de-man” the sector to achieve “zero manning.” In other words, Cenovus and other companies want to get rid of as many employees as possible in order to maximize profits.
It’s natural that oil executives and industry associations try to curry favour with politicians and the public—asking for tax cuts, complaining about carbon regulations, and citing competitiveness issues vis à vis the U.S.—by talking about the jobs in their sector. They understand that creating jobs has more resonance than boosting corporate profits.
Why are oil executives talking about jobs being under attack from government when they're also eliminating employees to maximize profits? writes @CCDale @envirodefence #opinion
But why should any government decision maker or stakeholder or citizen—let alone any worker in the oil patch—give corporate executives any credibility when they discuss the importance of their industry as a creator or maintainer of employment? It is clear that the view of industry leaders is that employees and their salaries are a cost to be minimized.
References to ghost workplaces are not just empty talk. There are ample examples which indicate that oil sands operations with few or no employees is the goal of much of the sector. Autonomous trucks—trucks that can operate without any driver—are already rolling out across the industry. Imperial Oil recently started using the largest autonomous truck in the world at their Kearl oil sands mine. Suncor is building 150 autonomous haulers to eliminate 400 jobs.
Other types of operations are also eliminating jobs. Sometime this year, it is expected that directional drilling used in in situ operations will be successfully “de-manned.” For hydraulic fracturing or fracking, crews that used to require 30 workers can now be done with two and some remote controls.
Strong profits will also not spare oil and gas employees. The search for the workerless operation is happening at all these companies despite a rising price of oil and soaring revenue. Cenovus completed a 15 per cent cut to its workforce earlier this year, after earning net revenues of $620 million in the last three months of 2017 alone.
This indifference to local workers and communities is not new. In 2013 and 2014, Canadian media outlets reported extensively on the practice amongst oil companies such as Husky Energy and Imperial Oil of hiring cheaper foreign workers through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, and then laying off domestic employees. After Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government made changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program in 2014 to restrict its abuse, companies used other programs to keep bringing in foreign workers that they could pay much less.
The end result is that despite continuously expanding oil production in Canada and corporate profits rising with the price of oil, many of the 100,000 jobs lost in the oil and gas over the last three to four years are not coming back. Despite the fact that some jobs have been recovered over the past months, little to no job growth is expected over the next few years in the oil sands even if the sector continues to expand.
Meanwhile, Canadian jobs in renewable energy had already surpassed jobs in the oil sands back in 2014. That’s before the downturn in the oil sector, and before the continued growth in development and jobs in clean energy.
So the question is: Given oil executives’ concerted efforts to get rid of every salary-earning employee in their companies, why does anyone listen when they talk about jobs?
Dale Marshall is the National Program Manager at Environmental Defence.