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Why Rachel Notley’s refinery pitch won’t solve the oilpatch’s problem

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Considering the recent oil price crash in Western Canada and the fact a provincial election is expected in the spring, the Alberta government is trying to pull out all the stops to lift the oilpatch out of the doldrums​.

Buying railway oil tank cars, subsidizing petrochemical plants and mandating oil production cuts are some of the NDP’s moves to spur activity in the industry or to increase oil prices.

Those moves have all received relatively strong support. 

But the government’s latest announcement aimed at aiding the industry, to look at building a new refinery in Alberta, is being met with significant skepticism. 

The Alberta government is issuing a request for expressions of interest from the private sector to build a refinery in the province that would use oil extracted here.

Experts say Alberta already has more refinery capacity than it needs and the biggest problem facing the province’s oilpatch remains unsolved — a lack of export pipeline space.

« It sounds, if I may be so blunt, like a little bit of desperation, » said Roger McKnight, chief petroleum analyst with En-Pro International.

« What is the market? Where is it going? How does it get out of the country? »

The only refinery to be built in Alberta in the past 30 years was the North West Sturgeon Upgrader, north of Edmonton, which was constructed with help from the Alberta government. The refinery’s price tag swelled from an estimate of $5.7 billion in 2013 to $9.5 billion. The facility has also faced criticism for only processing up to 50,000 barrels per day and only producing diesel, of which there is already ample supply in the province.

« It’s hard to be polite here. That’s an awful lot of money for very little return, » McKnight said. « I think it was a bit of a mistake. »

The Alberta government argues a new refinery would create jobs and create more wealth for the province by exporting a higher-value product. The Sturgeon refinery employed 8,000 people during construction and will employ around 400 full-time workers when it ramps up to full capacity.

The last refinery to be built in Alberta was the North West Sturgeon Upgrader, which was over-budget and delayed. It’s not yet operating at full capacity. (CBC)

Ian MacGregor, chairman of North West Refining, which is part-owner of the Sturgeon facility, says more refineries is exactly what Alberta needs. 

« I believe that refining is the future, » he said. « What we have to start doing is we got to quit selling raw material. We’ve got to sell finished goods. »

Constructing a refinery would likely take between five and 10 years, according to experts. Alberta has five refineries with a total capacity of more than 475,000 barrels per day. The province has the largest refining capacity in the country, amounting to about 25 per cent of Canada’s total processing volume.

Calgary-based petroleum industry analyst Michael Ervin doesn’t expect there will be much interest from industry to build a new refinery in Alberta without a sizeable subsidy.

« I doubt that the private sector will really see a business case for this unless the Alberta government was willing to ante up close to the entire cost of building a refinery, » said Ervin, who estimates the cost of constructing a typical refinery at around $15 billion.

Considering the long-term trend of more electric vehicles on the road, Ervin said the business case for a new refinery « just doesn’t seem to be there. »

‘A wish and a dream’

Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary, sees Tuesday’s announcement as pre-election rhetoric, much different from more recent actions targeting Alberta’s oil price woes.

« Whether that’s convincing the feds to buy Trans Mountain, or announcing the rail car purchase, or the curtailment of oil production — those are actually concrete things that have happened, » Bratt said. « [The refinery] is just a wish and a dream. »

The NDP has long favoured constructing more refineries in the province and did campaign on the issue during the last election.

If you were looking at investments you could make as a government in industries that are labour intensive, refining would be way at the bottom of that list.– Andrew Leach, University of Alberta

Submissions from the private sector will be accepted until Feb. 8. Depending on interest, the government may issue a formal request for proposals.

Refineries are often built near high-demand centres and also where labour and construction costs are relatively low, such as in parts of the U.S. and overseas.

University of Alberta economist Andrew Leach said there aren’t many details about how committed the government is to seeing a refinery built, or how the proposals would be evaluated.

« So, first pass, certainly nervous about it and not enough detail yet to tell you exactly why, » Leach said of the announcement.

Not enough jobs 

But if one of the big arguments for building the facility is jobs, that’s not enough, Leach said.

« If you were looking at investments you could make as a government in industries that are labour intensive, refining would be way at the bottom of that list, » Leach said.

Why Rachel Notley’s Alberta NDP is still considering building an oil refinery

Leach said there’s also the economic question of whether the financial return from refining is worth it.

« And the distinction there is, are we creating a product that’s more expensive enough to justify all of the labour and capital we’d have to put in to do it?

« And for the most part, in Alberta, the answer has been ‘no’ for a lot of the previous decades, which is why the commercial interest isn’t there. »

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Anglais

‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Anglais

Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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