Canada’s Oil Sands Need U.S. Workers, Alberta Minister Says

Unemployed U.S. construction workers should look for jobs in Canada’s oil-sands industry, which faces a shortage of as many as 75,000 positions in the next few years, Alberta Energy Minister Ronald Liepert said.

Alberta’s oil sands, the world’s third-largest recoverable reserve of crude, needs workers including electricians and construction staff, Liepert said in an interview at Bloomberg headquarters in New York late yesterday. Labor restrictions between Canada and the U.S. need to be eliminated first, he said.

“This is one way of solving the unemployment problem,” he said. “I really hope as two countries we can come to some sort of ability to move people back and forth. If we’re short 50,000 to 75,000 workers there would be no problem finding those workers here in the U.S.”

U.S. President Barack Obama will address Congress tomorrow with a plan to boost job growth by injecting more than $300 billion into the economy next year. Unemployment in the world’s largest economy remains at 9.1 percent more than two years after the recession’s official end. That compares with 7.2 percent in Canada.

Alberta faces potential inflation as the oil-sands industry, the largest source of revenue for the province, prepares to almost double production over the next decade, the minister said. Allowing U.S. workers, many of whom share a similar culture and speak the same language, would help reduce that risk, he said.

“This is an opportunity that wasn’t here five years ago when we were both in an overheated economy and we were bringing in workers from different countries that had different cultures,” said Liepert. “To me it makes total sense that the first opportunity should be for Americans.”

Chinese Investment

Alberta faces the risk that Chinese investors in the oil sands will slow down investment if Canada doesn’t build a pipeline to the Pacific Ocean to ship crude to Asia, he said.

Recent Chinese investments in the oil sands include Cnooc Ltd.’s $2.1 billion purchase of Opti Canada Inc. in July. China Petrochemical Corp., the Beijing-based company known as Sinopec Group, agreed to pay ConocoPhillips $4.65 billion for its stake in Syncrude Canada Ltd. last year.

“If we don’t soon figure out how to get the product to Asia, the investment is going to dry up,” said Liepert. “The Chinese want to see things happen. If we want to continue to be open to Asian investment, there comes a quid pro quo in their mind and that’s coming up fast.”

Gateway Pipeline

Enbridge Inc., Canada’s largest pipeline owner, has applied to build a 1,172-kilometer (730-mile) pipeline, called Northern Gateway, that would end at the Pacific port of Kitimat and enable tankers to take up to 525,000 barrels of bitumen per day from Alberta to China, Japan and South Korea. Opening those markets is an “obvious” step to reduce dependence on the U.S., which imports almost all of Canada’s oil exports, said Liepert.

TransCanada Corp. is waiting for a decision from the U.S. State Department on whether it can go ahead with an expansion of its Keystone pipeline that would move bitumen to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Clearly we need to diversify,” he said. “If we get to where we’ll be in 10 years, we’re going to need several Keystones and Gateways.”

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