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Representatives from unions, industry, and political parties with stakes in Newfoundland and Labrador’s offshore oil and gas industry rallied together at Confederation Building on Monday morning ahead of an emergency debate at the House of Assembly over the fate of the Terra Nova floating production, storage, and offloading (FPSO) installation. 

Terra Nova is one of four offshore oil installations, roughly 350 kilometres off the coast of Newfoundland. The FPSO has not produced oil since December 2019. While Calgary-based Suncor has indicated it wishes to retrofit and overhaul assets in the mature field, at a cost of about $600 million, four of seven oil companies involved have indicated they would prefer decommissioning.

The provincial government has so far refused to purchase a 15% equity stake in the development. They instead offered nearly $200 million in cash, and $300 million in royalty deferments, in order to encourage continued investment in the project. But the companies involved have not accepted this offer and the situation remains at an impasse.

Suncor is expected to make an announcement about the project’s future on Tuesday, June 15.

It was a smaller rally than the one which transpired in the same place ten months earlier. With the provincial government’s $500 million overture to the companies operating Terra Nova having already been rebuffed, demands from protestors were less clear—and the mood more despondent.

“It’s our oil”: Mercer

Unifor Local 2121 President Dave Mercer opened the rally by declaring that beleaguered workers in the industry were on the same side as their employers. But even this mood began to shift over the course of the rally as speakers made it apparent that the hangup was not lack of political support as much as corporate intransigence.

By the end of the rally, Mercer noted: “It’s our workers who get the oil. Companies just provide the equipment and the opportunity. We are the ones who make it work. It’s our oil.”

Charlene Johnson, CEO of the Newfoundland and Labrador Oil and Gas Industry Association, did not seem especially hopeful even as she rattled off the employment and revenue benefits NOIA expected the extension of Terra Nova to generate.

“Terra Nova [FPSO] now looks headed to the scrapyard and thousands of lives hang in the balance,” she told the rally. “A resolution [now] is difficult, maybe even impossible.”

Mary Shortall, President of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour, was the first speaker to evoke a direct comparison to the 1992 cod moratorium.

“Where is the plan to protect workers?” Shortall asked the crowd. “Have we learned nothing from the cod moratorium, and having a plan as industries shift? There are no plans to look after workers if oil players decide to pick up and leave.”

“Government needs to develop realistic plans for tomorrow,” she continued. “We need transition planning for workers to retrain, and workers and unions need to be at the centre of those discussions. … Employers and governments are playing games with no plan about what happens next.”

Shortall said that the province must negotiate with the federal government over plans for a green transition. But in the meantime, without a plan, government must “do whatever [they] can to protect jobs now.”

“We know industry and markets are changing”: O’Regan

Former St. John’s mayor Dennis “Doc” O’Keefe then spoke to the rally.

“I love NL oil and gas,” he declared. “The key to our economic recovery is the offshore, and the key to revitalizing the offshore is Terra Nova. This is a tipping point. Others will go if this goes.”

O’Keefe disputed provincial Industry, Energy, and Technology Minister Andrew Parsons’ position that the province buying an equity stake in Terra Nova would be “too great a risk.”

“The real risk is losing jobs,” the former mayor said. “The greater risk is losing the offshore. If need be then they have to take the risk.” He also called on oil companies to “stop dilly-dallying, sit down, and work out a deal.”

“God guard thee Newfoundland from those would drag us down,” he concluded. “We won’t go down without a fight.”

Federal Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan also made an appearance to speak at the rally. Like Shortall, he too invoked memories of the cod moratorium—and the help Ottawa has already given to the offshore oil industry.

“[Newfoundland and Labrador] is one of the greatest oil producers in the country,” O’Regan told the crowd. “[But] we know industry and markets are changing. It’s not an easy time to be in this industry. That’s why we put $320 million on the table and a further $75 million to lower emissions.”

“Ottawa doesn’t normally do this, but we gave that money in the spirit of the Atlantic Accord, to allow the province and the people to decide what is the best investment to support workers and lower emissions,” he continued.

O’Regan said that “we will continue working with these companies to come up with a solution,” but also noted the oil companies involved in Terra Nova had turned down the province’s most recent offer. He called on them to “support these workers, support this industry. It is your place to step up.”

“Make sure you take care of the workers”: Brazil

Provincial PC leader David Brazil also addressed the rally, as did provincial NDP leader Alison Coffin.

Brazil said that the onus is on the oil companies to “do the right thing,” and that “we need to find creative solutions and put politics aside.”

“If you do business in NL, make sure you take care of the workers,” Brazil concluded.

Coffin told the crowd that “we’re here today because you don’t have a job.”

“Ten months ago government said they’d support workers,” she said. “Government could have put a plan in place. [But] government has failed you, there is no plan. [They] are downloading the costs of this burden onto you.”

Mercer closed the rally by reminding everyone that “this is not just government, it’s companies. [Companies need] to step up and put people back to work.”

He concluded with a direct plea to Suncor and other oil companies.

“It’s not just you in this,” Mercer said. “It’s everyone in the province.”

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Drew Brown has been Editor-in-Chief of The Independent since 2019. He holds a BA (Hons.) and MA in political science from Memorial University. He was a PhD candidate in political theory and Canadian politics at the University of Alberta, but left the program to pursue journalism full time in 2017. He was a national politics columnist for VICE Canada from 2015 to 2019, and his work has appeared in CBC, Newfoundland Quarterly, The Deep, The Scope, The Overcast, and The Guardian. He grew up in Grand Falls-Windsor and currently lives in St. John’s, NL.