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Alberta has only itself to blame for bitumen problems

Hey Alberta! Go suck a lemon!

I don't endorse that sentiment, of course. I'm an Albertan, after all.

The person who did say something like that, as it happens, didn't say it about Alberta.

It was a long, long time ago, 1976 as a matter of fact, when Catherine Ford said that about Quebec.

All this bilingualism stuff, see, was driving the young reporter for a small Ontario newspaper nuts, so she sat down at her typewriter and got it out of her system.

"Hey Quebec! Go suck a lemon! Better still, give me a divorce. A no fault, no-contest, you keep your property and I'll keep mine, split," Ford wrote, continuing in that vein probably longer than was strictly necessary.

Alberta newspapers -- in the midst of an oil boom and feeling alienated with Prime Minister Trudeau; Pierre, that is -- loved it. They reprinted it like crazy. Before you knew it, Ford was a leading light at the Calgary Herald, where she enjoyed a stellar career before retiring in 2004.

Fast-forward to 2018. Alberta has been the master of all it surveyed as long as anyone can remember, perpetually the richest province in Canada. This was thanks to our petroleum reserves, as it turns out, not our good management. Still, that never stopped us from lecturing other provinces, especially Quebec, about how to run their affairs.

It's been so long since Ford showed up in Calgary we've had two booms go bust! So, as the famous and probably apocryphal Alberta bumper sticker inferred, we've pissed it all away a second time.

For a recent decade of that epoch, Canada was run by a prime minister from Calgary. His chief lieutenant was another Calgary MP. His Parliamentary Caucus was packed with Albertans.

And yet here we are, in the midst in another one of our periodic Alberta tantrums.

There's a Bitumen Bubble, don't you know? Or, as we call it this year, a price differential between what tarry Alberta bitumen fetches and better-quality crude from West Texas. If we only had a pipeline, we have persuaded ourselves, we'd have access to more markets and the price would go up. (Never mind that supply-and-demand stuff. That's so 20th Century!)

Why, it's costing us more than $80 million a day not to have that pipeline! So we want one, and we want it now!

We're not only furious that we don't have a new pipeline to tidewater, as we call the ocean when we're here on the Prairies, we're furious again at Prime Minister Trudeau; Justin, that is.

We had a big demonstration in Calgary Thursday outside a meeting where Trudeau was speaking. People who got paid time off from work carried nicely printed signs. That was a good thing, though, because the badly printed signs were either in the hands of pissed-off postal union members who were yelling at the PM about something else, and weren't getting paid for it, or of people who thought it was cool to attack the prime minister's 70-year-old mother.

Never mind that during those 10 years Alberta Conservatives were running the country, not a mile -- pardon moi, not a single kilometre -- of pipeline to tidewater got built.

Never mind that that Calgary prime minister's chief lieutenant, also from Calgary, was Jason Kenney, who now heads Alberta's Opposition United Conservative Party and seems to be the angriest of all the angry Albertans who are angry at Trudeau.

Never mind that Alberta's NDP premier, Rachel Notley, whom Kenney accuses of being a close ally of Trudeau, is just as angry at Trudeau as Kenney is.

Never mind that Trudeau has actually had the federal government purchase a pipeline so the government of Canada can expand it, and appears to be doing his damnedest to make that happen -- in spite of being accused daily by Albertans of doing the opposite.

Never mind that the more than $80-million dollars we're supposed to be losing every day is a highly suspect figure based on a fundamentally flawed Scotiabank report and nobody knows how Alberta government finance boffins actually came up with their estimate from that.

Never mind that not all barrels of Alberta crude are subject to the discount, even though the Scotiabank calculation, and therefore the Alberta conclusion, assumed they were. (A truer estimate may be more like 400,000 of the three million or so barrels we export daily are subject to the discount. And we're not losing it, we're forgoing it, which is an important distinction.)

Never mind that the problem isn't just pipelines, it's our own neglectful management through all the years the dough was rolling in.

Never mind that at least three of the Big Five oilsands producers -- Husky Oil Inc., Imperial Oil Ltd. and Suncor Energy Inc. -- are making out like bandits from the bitumen price differential. Naturally, they will do whatever they can to ensure the situation remains exactly as it is.

And never mind that our previous Conservative provincial government back in 2007 completely ignored the sound advice of its own experts about the high risk of pursuing gold-rush-style development of the oilsands without investing in value-added production like upgrading bitumen here in Alberta.

Oh, and never mind that while we keep churning the stuff out as fast as we can, it turns out that law of supply and demand still applies in the 21st Century. Who knew?

So here we are. Blaming everybody but ourselves about the very real predicament in which we find ourselves.

Which is a long way of saying, I suppose, that I wouldn't be very surprised if some young reporter somewhere else in Canada was writing a column right now that begins, "Hey Alberta! Go suck a lemon!"

Or, perhaps, if she happens to live in Quebec, "Alberta! Allez sucer un citron!"

Image: Flickr/governmentofalberta

NOTE TO READERS: I owe B.C. economist Robyn Allen for the tip about the Scotiabank report, and The Tyee's Andrew Nikiforuk, a Calgarian, for the evidence of the next four never-minds. Ms. Ford’s column is not easily found on the Internet, all the likely databases having started their work in 1977. Thanks to the help of a real librarian, however, a copy of the entire column has been located.

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