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SASCI advises residents to prepare for life without Shell

Thursday, 16 May 2019. Posted in Shootin' the Breeze

SASCI advises residents to prepare for life without Shell

SASCI advises residents to prepare for life without Shell

By Jess Harrington

Closure of the Shell Waterton Sour Gas Complex is not a matter of if, but when — but Southwest Alberta Sustainable Community Initiative says this doesn’t have to spell doom for Pincher Creek, if the community prepares for the change now. This is SASCI’S main message following the release of a report on the potential impacts of the closure.

When Shell announced in 2015 that it would be downsizing and eventually closing the plant in the next 10 to 15 years, SASCI — a regional development non-profit that helps communities build resilience through resource-sharing, dialogue facilitation and network-building — suggested Pincher Creek try to get ahead of the problem.

With Shell’s participation, and the support of the Alberta Real Estate Foundation and the Town of Pincher Creek, SASCI hired an independent consultant to prepare a report on the economic and social effects that Shell’s pulling out could have on Pincher Creek.

The results are sobering. Among other impacts, the report found that when the complex closes:

—Annual GDP in the region will decline by $34 million.

—Tax revenues to the MD of Pincher Creek will decline by over 20 per cent.

—An estimated 265 high-paying full-time jobs will be lost at the facility and other local businesses, affecting eight per cent of the current local labour force.

—As many as 650 people could leave the region as workers and their families relocate, affecting up to nine per cent of the current local housing stock.

While these effects are undeniably alarming, SASCI hopes the report will catalyze people to act.

“This [report] is intended to give the community [information] about what the future looks like so we can make informed decisions about what, if anything, we should do about it,” says Celesa Horvath, former SASCI chairwoman and report originator.

“We can either let this happen without doing anything,” she continues, “or, we can think as a community about what we want the future to look like and take action now, while we have the time, to mitigate those impacts, and better position us to transition to a post-Waterton future.”

You can find the full impact report at www.sasci.ca.

In January, Shell announced it had put its sour gas assets in central and southern Alberta — including Shell Waterton — up for sale, which could change the anticipated timeline and impact of the complex closure.

At that time, Rej Tetrault, general manager for Foothills and Groundbirch with Shell Canada, stated that a buyer could potentially invest in some of the wells to extend the life of the plant.

The company reiterated that “If there are no qualified buyers, Shell will continue to operate the site.”

On Monday, Tara Lemay, head of media relations for Shell Canada, said there are still no immediate plans for closure, and no significant updates on the potential sale.

SASCI’s report was prepared prior to the January sale announcement and recognizes there could be changes to the timeline or plans. “Due to this uncertainty,” it cautions, “forecasted future conditions should be treated as estimates only and not as certain outcomes.”

“It’s not about what we stand to lose, but what we stand to gain”

Celesa and the current SASCI chairman, James Van Leeuwen, say the most important thing people need to do when responding to these findings is not to be afraid, but to see the report for the rare opportunity it provides.

The pair, who have decades of combined experience in rural community development, say that when a major industry leaves a community, it tends to happen suddenly — think of General Motors’ decision last year to shut down its flagship plant in Oshawa by the end of this year.

“Most communities never do this,” James says. “To our knowledge this is groundbreaking in terms of having a longer lead time to see that change coming … and for a community taking the initiative to understand the impacts of such a significant change.”

It’s not entirely unprecedented, however.

James says there are a few communities that have managed to avoid an anticipated decline by being proactive. He points to the Olds Institute for Community and Regional Development as a powerful potential model for Pincher Creek.

In 2001, community leaders in Olds, recognizing that the town faced economic and social challenges in the near future, formed a non-government “backbone” organization that would focus solely on finding ways for the community to thrive.

Through the institute, the four founding organizations — Olds College, Olds and District Chamber of Commerce, Olds Agricultural Society and the Town of Olds — were able to leverage their resources to build an entirely community-owned full-scale fibre optic Internet utility service, which has given them a distinct advantage as the economy evolves.

SASCI feels Pincher Creek has the capacity to build a similar organization to do bold work of its own — but it requires a willingness to reimagine the character of the community, as Olds did.

Generations crafting a new future together

James says that while Shell’s leaving undoubtedly poses a big economic challenge, it’s even more important to look at it as a social issue.

“Social innovation is the critical context for this whole thing,” he says. “It’s what allows you to develop your economy, because you’re not going to be able to actively develop new opportunities if the community doesn’t want you to.”

James says the biggest key to successfully transitioning will be accepting a generational shift of power that might lead to a new identity for the community — which may not be easy.

“This [needs] to be about creating opportunity for younger generations in the community … because they see frontiers of opportunity that older generations can’t.”

“The community has to be open not just to new ways of making a living, but new identities, new ways of being in the community and thinking and talking and storytelling,” he continues.

“And that’s a difficult thing for an older generation, because often they don’t understand the kinds of competencies a person requires to prosper in the future economy, so they may not want the community to change.

“But if older folks can say, ‘The future is not all about me and our generation, it’s about [youth], and what we need to be doing to support them in having the same prosperity and quality of life that we’ve had’ — now that’s a legacy worth celebrating.”

James and Celesa both say that if the community can collectively figure out how to mitigate the impact of Shell leaving, it could serve as an example to many other towns and villages across the country that are struggling in similar ways.

How to be part of the transition

Right now, SASCI’s main focus is connecting with community champions and key organizations that can help build up public will to tackle this issue, so the work is in its early stages.

Once it’s able to build up a network and brainstorm a bit, though, the plan is to bring some concrete development ideas forward to the community, which SASCI may or may not spearhead.

James and Celesa are both adamant that whatever comes from this report, it must be organic and come entirely from the community — and if it becomes apparent that SASCI is not the ideal leader moving forward, it will shift into more of a support role for whatever projects the community wants to undertake.

James invites anyone who feels they can contribute to this transition effort, on either a personal or an organizational level, to reach out to SASCI, and stay tuned for opportunities to weigh in on options once more tangible ideas come together.

Updates regarding the sale of Shell’s Waterton Complex will be reported as information is made available.

Photo courtesy of Tara LeMay at Shell. 

Article from May 8 issue of Shootin' the Breeze.

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