'We're pretty resilient:' COVID-19 a bigger blow to Oyen, Hardisty than killing Keystone XL pipeline expansion: Mayors

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The mayors of two Alberta towns that saw booms as a result of the Keystone XL pipeline expansion before it was formally killed this month say COVID-19 hit the communities harder than the cancellation of the project will.

By the time the expansion was officially cancelled June 9, after U.S. President Joe Biden signed an executive order to revoke the pipeline’s permit in January, work had largely wrapped up in the Alberta towns of Hardisty and Oyen. Parts of the expansion, which was to run from Alberta to Nebraska, began construction last year.

In January, Calgary-based TC Energy, the pipeline’s owner, said it planned to eliminate more than 1,000 construction jobs as a result. Before then, Hardisty, 200 km southeast of Edmonton, had expected an influx of about 600 or so temporary workers spending locally during the construction season.

However, Mayor Douglas Irving said in June it was the COVID-19 pandemic that really took its toll on the town of about 550 people.

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All Hardisty hotels and restaurants suffered under the effects of public health restrictions, and one local diner, Deena’s Country Kitchen, closed permanently, he said.

“That’s quite a loss to the town,” said Irving, adding the restaurant’s in-person dining was popular with workers.

“Their main thing was breakfast — early morning breakfast for the crews, and then some of the farmers came in and had breakfast at nine o’clock.”

The COVID-19 slowdown also left one local hotel with less than 10 per cent occupancy due to fewer construction crews. But the town is forging on, optimistic about future developments now that restrictions are poised to be lifted, largely in their entirety, July 1.

The fact that Hardisty had already seen most of the associated economic benefit from the Keystone expansion last year is not lost on community residents. Now, Irving is eager to see a boost from planned rodeo events in July, and the local petroleum tank farm continues to buzz with work and maintenance activity.

“People are going to need oil for a long, long time,” he said.

During the height of work on Keystone XL last year in Oyen, 300 km east of Calgary, the number of temporary workers, many staying in camps just outside town, doubled its population of about 1,100 throughout the week. Mayor Doug Jones pegged their spending at roughly $3 million every month in the town’s grocery stores, hair salons, gas stations and local businesses.

But Jones said that the section of the pipeline expansion near Oyen is complete and in his town too, it’s COVID-19 that has had a far more of a negative impact.

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“We sort of knew that this could happen or it was gonna happen,” said Jones of the formal cancellation, adding that crews of about 250 workers came back in the spring to begin reclamation work on the land affected by Keystone XL construction.

He too is positive about his small town’s future, touting interest in the potential of wind and solar farm projects under development in the area.

“We’re pretty resilient down here, there’s lots of different things happening,” said Jones.

In a project update provided to the Canada Energy Regulator on May 25, TC Energy outlined the construction it had done prior to the project’s presidential permit, and the clean-up underway.

That includes remediation work, or returning disturbed ground back to vegetation or farmland, along 190 km of the pipeline in Alberta. At least 150 km of pipe will remain in the ground, and the company will preserve two constructed pump stations along with other projects completed at the Hardisty tank terminal.

That work is expected to continue until the fall.

In a statement last week, TC Energy said the company will evaluate its long-term plans in the coming months, but no decisions have been made.

The expansion project would have carried more than 800,000 additional barrels a day of diluted bitumen from Alberta’s oilsands to Nebraska and refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

The government has said it will still look for ways to recoup Alberta’s investment, estimated at about $1.3 billion.

lijohnson@postmedia.com

twitter.com/reportrix

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