February 13 is the 70th anniversary of the day Alberta simultaneously won the lottery and started to watch everything go to hell in a handcart. February 13…Alberta’s unluckiest lucky day.
In other words, 70 years ago, with memories of the Great Depression and the Second World War still very fresh in the minds of the province’s population of about 800,000 souls, Leduc No. 1, a few miles south of Edmonton, struck oil and the whole world changed.
Cars didn’t have seat belts back in 1947, so no one thought to say: “Fasten your seat belts!” But by gosh, they should’ve!
Here it is 2017, and we’ve hardly ever planned for the stuff that started gushing out of the ground just west of the farm fields now occupied by Edmonton International Airport. That’s a problem, seeing as the rate it gushes at is starting to slow down.
Had we done more planning, we might be better prepared for the entirely predictable decline of oil, of which we’ve had some harsh intimations these past couple of years.
It may be upon us sooner than we imagined. In which case we’re in deep trouble. Or maybe not. In which case we may be in another kind of trouble. Either way, back in 1947, we seem to have just climbed onto the sled and started sliding down the hill.
It’s been great fun for a lot of us. Perhaps not so much for others. An exciting, invigorating, rollercoaster ride that nevertheless trended downhill — environmentally destructive, socially divisive and inclined to undermine our democracy.
It might have been the unexpected death of Premier William Aberhart in 1943 that began the transition of Social Credit from a revolutionary social experiment to just another conservative party. Certainly, Ernest Manning, who succeeded “Bible Bill,” was no wild-eyed revolutionist. But it might just as likely been the good and bad that came with the substance that rose from the earth on February 13 that caused that change.
Certainly oil made some of us very rich, and benefitted many others in plenty of ways. In 1946, Canada produced only about 20,000 barrels of oil a day, most of it in Alberta, and consumed 10 times as much. A decade after Leduc No. 1 came in, Alberta was producing 400,000 barrels a day.
Oil wealth allowed the investment in wonderful infrastructure that would otherwise have been beyond our means, or at least beyond our confidence. It also meant the implementation of right-wing nostrums without many of the economic consequences that would have been inevitable in a place not so blessed — or cursed, depending on how you look at it.
A one-note economy based on a single resource? Don’t worry about it. A series of lurches from dustbowl to boom, to bust and back again? Never mind, blame Ottawa for what at times amounted to a near total lack of management. Low taxes that made us feel rich — and made us feel as if no commitment to democracy was necessary or desirable? Never mind…go back to sleep.
Nowadays, we’re aware of the symptoms of “Dutch Disease” — but who around here cares? We don’t manufacture much anyway, so the symptoms are all experienced elsewhere in Canada.
Certain Albertans like to complain about equalization payments, but we’ve been happy to share the downside of our wealth with the rest of the country. And we wonder why our neighbours don’t want our pipelines to tidewater!
So we’d better mark that one down to the liabilities column too.
On the other hand, here in Alberta we’ve had historically low unemployment rates, big money for many working-class Albertans and the ability to spend as if there was no future while still anticipating a great future.
It’s interesting to note that this phenomenon continues to be the norm, even in the midst of an economic downturn political parties opposed to our current NDP government would like us to believe is nigh unto the End of the World. Leastways, as the latest census results show, people continue to move here in droves. As Aberhart, who was first elected in 1935, could have told us, it may have been bad for a couple of years, but it’s been nothing like the 1930s.
Without Alberta’s oil wealth, a wise premier like Peter Lougheed couldn’t have led the building of modern hospitals in towns and cities across the province. Without Alberta’s oil wealth, a fool of a premier like Ralph Klein couldn’t have squandered a billion and a half dollars on one-time payments to Albertans big enough to buy a iPod or two weeks’ worth of beer and pizza…and then billed it “the Alberta Advantage.” I doubt many fortunes were based on that confused tribute to social credit.
If we hadn’t had oil, would Alberta today be a rural backwater like petroleum-free Manitoba, or a modern technological success story like petroleum-free post-war Finland? I can’t answer that. My crystal ball is foggy today.
Having the stuff, though, we sure could have managed it better — as Lougheed, to his credit, tried to do. We could have been a Norway, if we’d stuck to the Lougheed plan. Instead, we’re something less. On the other hand, at least we avoided the ugly fates of the worst of the world’s failed petro-tyrannies. It’s helped that we were part of a federation with a constitution that includes a Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Having seen the price of natural gas go bust, and our conventional oil reserves decline and lose value, we seem to have put all our hopes in bitumen — which no one can argue we don’t have in plentitude. Alas, it’s expensive to process, dirty and doesn’t exactly sell at a premium at a time when oil prices are languishing worldwide anyway.
So it’s not clear if this is the best plan or the only possible plan. The NDP government of Rachel Notley has certainly tried to suggest otherwise — while building social license to continue with the extraction and exploitation of bitumen.
But there’s a group of people here in Alberta who erupt into threatening jeers if you dare to suggest differently — as Notley and her government have discovered to their distress, and their peril.
Later today, Margaret McCuaig-Boyd, Notley’s minister of energy, will mark this date at the site of Leduc No. 1 near the town of Devon.
The premier will probably be assailed by the angriest segments of the Alberta right for not being there herself to pay obeisance to oil.
There will be no such protest, however, that also invited is the president of the Canadian Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors.
Mark Scholz was a founding member of the Alberta Alliance Party, which became the Wildrose Party. He was chief of staff to Paul Hinman, first leader of the Wildrose Party, in 2008, and was a member of the party’s executive council for five years. The “Oil Respect” campaign that featured the risible Bernard-the-Roughneck meme is said by Alberta Oil magazine to have been his brainchild.
What was our government thinking to give him a platform, no matter what his business card says?
Maybe higher oil prices will be back soon, but the realities of the market, and the realities of the biosphere, won’t be changed by the ideology of capitalism. So beware politicians promising you they can Make Alberta Great Again with a snap of a finger.
The good luck on this day in 1947 was that money started to flow into this province with the oil. The bad luck may be that a lot of both flowed right back out again, along with a good deal of our Prairie common sense.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.
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