COMMENTARY – Looking for light at the end of the tunnel

Commentary by Joe McWilliams

The other day a young fellow was telling me he has had no luck lately finding work as a third-year apprentice electrician in Alberta. When he started in the program, there were jobs galore. The money was great and the future looked rosy indeed.
Now? He said every job that’s posted has thousands of hopefuls looking at it, and he’s had no response at all from all the résumés he’s sent out. So to keep himself busy and make a few bucks he’s going to help out a friend doing bathroom renovations. He says he may not have enough money to do his third period of electrical schooling.
There are probably 10,000 similar stories out there. Is this a depression? Or a Depression, even?Whatever it might be, a lot of people around here are saying ‘thank goodness the mills are doing okay.’
The mills are doing okay, keeping a lot of people in work and the local economy afloat. They don’t exactly make up for a moribund oilpatch, but they do provide a certain buoyancy. Hotels and restaurants are still open, so far.
However, there is a fair amount of uncertainty when it comes to the viability of the forest products industry. A lot of people simply don’t like the idea of large swaths of trees being cut down and are trying hard to stop it, at least in some areas. Certain First Nations – or at least members thereof – are involved in this. It sets up quite a difficult and delicate situation; there’s plenty to sympathize with, when it comes to the desire to preserve the forest and its wildlife. But on the other hand, the forest industry is keeping a lot of people employed directly and other businesses above water. Take that away and what do we have left? A lot of trees and no jobs.
Let’s move to pipelines. Benefits all around if Alberta could get more of its product to market. But the way things are looking, without First Nations support, nobody’s going to be building any major pipelines anytime soon, east or west.
Interestingly, the Frog Lake First Nation is sitting on a billion or so barrels of oil and has a development deal with a Chinese company. Frog Lake Energy Resources boss Joe Dion was saying in a radio interview the other day that pipelines are the answer, and he’s optimistic they’ll get built. He predicted that such projects are do-able, but only if First Nations are onside. And how do you achieve that? asked the interviewer. Guarantee them a revenue stream, he said.
So there you have it. Right there is the formula for how things are going to work in the future, if they do. It comes down to a new tax off the top of everything. How that might work out financially is a good question. I’ll have to let other people figure it out, although chances are it won’t work as long as the price of a barrel of oil is so low. But it looks as if that’s the way things are going. Either that or we shut everything down and look for something entirely different. There is, after all, a certain lobby that keeps shouting about the great economic possibilities in alternative energy. Their voices seem to be getting louder all the time.

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