Canadian Manufacturing

Union bracing for layoffs as future of N.L. refinery thrown into uncertainty

Irving Oil announced in May that it had signed a deal to purchase North Atlantic Refinery Ltd.

October 6, 2020  The Canadian Press

COME BY CHANCE, N.L. — Workers at an oil refinery in Come by Chance, N.L. are bracing for layoffs in the wake of news that a deal to purchase the facility has fallen through.

“It’s devastating news . . . . The workers, they’re in shock,” Glenn Nolan, president of the United Steelworkers Union Local 9316, said Oct. 6. He spoke to reporters outside the municipal hall in the tiny town of Arnold’s Cove, just a few minutes drive from the sprawling facility.

New Brunswick-based Irving Oil announced in May that it had signed a deal to purchase North Atlantic Refinery Ltd., the operator of the refinery. But on Oct. 6, Irving released a statement saying the agreement for the purchase had been terminated, without providing additional details.

Nolan said it’s not yet clear just how many people will lose their jobs or what will happen to the 135,000-barrel-a-day refinery. When asked if it could shut down for good, he said: “It’s a very good possibility. That’s what the scare is about.”

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The refinery employs about 500 people, some who have worked there for decades, he said.

Nolan told reporters he spoke with government officials Oct. 6. Premier Andrew Furey and Industry, Energy and Technology Minister Andrew Parsons said Oct. 5 that discussions were ongoing with Silverpeak, the U.S.-based investment firm that owns the refinery, and that the company continues to “work on its options.”

Nolan said he’d like to know what those options are and said he’ll be meeting with government representatives in the coming days to find out.

He also said he asked whether the $320 million in federal aid announced in September for the province’s floundering oil industry could be used to help the refinery. He was told that money was only for the offshore, he said.

“I can tell you one thing, Minister Seamus O’Regan hasn’t reached out,” he said, adding that he has called the federal natural resources minister’s office several times.

“We’d like to know what he’s going to do to help Newfoundland and Labradorians, communities, and especially the workers, the 500-plus workers, that are going through this.”

Some workers gathered at the site Oct. 6 morning for a meeting about the refinery’s shaky situation, though parking lots were mostly empty. Hundreds of workers were laid off in the spring as the pandemic hit the province and the refinery was idled, Nolan said, adding that the refinery has been operating with a skeleton staff of about 60 since then.

The Oct. 6 news is the latest blow to the province’s oil and gas sector. Several major offshore oil projects have been delayed or suspended in the wake of the pandemic and crashing global oil prices. Husky Energy recently announced it was reviewing its operations in the province as well as its $2.2-billion West White Rose project.

When asked if refinery workers were polishing off their resumes to look for more work, Nolan shook his head.

“There’s nothing out there,” he said.

By Sarah Smellie