Alberta, we need to talk
Alberta’s economy looks ever more like a runaway train. Climate change raises the prospect of needing to slow this train down, something that would be advisable even if rising temperatures were not reaping havoc, because the boom has made labour scarce, housing even scarcer, and created a number of other social and environmental problems. With the difficulty of keeping up with the status quo, one might think cutting back or holding the line on production would be a good idea. That oil is not going anywhere, and the price is only going to go up in the future.
Alas, no. The recent Globe series on Alberta and the oil sands makes for a compelling overview of boom times in Alberta. Its lead article contrasts the big expansion plans for the industry with broader social and environmental goals:
… [O]il production in northern Alberta is expected to quadruple to more than four million barrels a day by about 2020, if all the projects proposed go ahead. Virtually every major oil company in the Western world has picked up a piece of the action, investing nearly $90-billion to create what promises to be the biggest industrial project on Earth and sparking predictions that Canada will become what Prime Minister Stephen Harper calls an â€œenergy superpower.â€
… Canada has now become a major-league merchant of one of the most desirable â€“ and dirtiest â€“ sources of energy. … The wrinkles are beginning to show. The growing wealth of Alberta has aggravated the cleavage between Central Canadian assumptions and Prairie assertions, between haves and have-nots. The soaring Canadian dollar â€“ viewed more and more as petro-currency â€“ has savaged the Central Canadian manufacturing and forestry industries. The economy is increasingly concentrated on oil, which can be a fickle commodity. As people flock to the province, escalating housing costs have squeezed everyday Albertans and overburdened public services, most acutely in Fort McMurray, where men and women come to work but not to settle.
And it is far from certain that the bullish assumptions about development will pan out. There are at least two major hurdles: the growing protest at home and abroad over the massive environmental toll and a serious shortage of workers to build all those multibillion-dollar projects.
Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach could not even be bothered to stick around to talk about climate change last week when the premiers were meeting (and the topic was adaptation to climate change, not reducing greenhouse gas emissions). Big Ed was probably just sending a political signal back home in anticipation of a provincial election. But BC Premier Gordon Campbell, while gracious about it publicly, must have been furious in private. Campbell has been making so much hay out of BC and Alberta being “one single economy” due to TILMA, so this is a major slight.
Alberta has positioned itself as the new Quebec. Any federal toes over its line in the oil sands automatically invoke deeply held memories of being hard done by the Trudeau-era National Energy Program. Like a teenager demanding its independence, Alberta has long since forgotten that it grew up in Canada, and was raised well. Dalhousie’s Lars Osberg puts it so:
When my parents were growing up in Alberta in the 1930s, it was a poor province â€“ their oral version of Canadaâ€™s history contained many complaints about exploitation of Alberta farmers by tariff-protected Ontario manufacturers. However, by the time I was growing up in Ottawa in the 1950s and 1960s, oil had been found in Alberta. As a kid, I noticed that the price of gasoline was higher on the Ontario side of the river than it was on the Quebec side, because the federal governmentâ€™s National Petroleum Policy restricted the importation of cheaper foreign oil, as a way of encouraging the development of Albertaâ€™s petro-chemical industry. At the National Research Council, my fatherâ€™s research on extracting oil from the Athabaska Tar Sands was financed by all of Canadaâ€™s taxpayers â€“ and from 1957 to 1965 Alberta was a recipient of equalization payments.