To hell with Buddy Ebsen

The oil sands may be ugly, but our schools and hospitals depend on them

Canadian GDP by regionThe delightful thing about the Canada West Foundation’s new report on the national importance of Western Canada’s oil and gas sector is that it is less necessary than ever. The CWF was put together at a time when the West was politically and economically vulnerable; now, as the above chart from “Look Before You Leap” shows, it speaks for the largest of Canada’s regional economies—one that is underwriting frontline public services in the East and providing a disproportionate share of Confederation’s economic growth and federal revenue, not to mention a certain amount of pure remittance funding. (Are there any data at all on interprovincial remittances? Surely this is an underexamined aspect of our economy.)

And I think all this is now generally understood; indeed, not only understood, but felt in a way it might not have been in the 1990s. The last couple of years have witnessed a particularly concerted effort to publicize the ugliness of the Athabasca tar sands. NGOs, artists, and progressives have been willing to judge by what they see (and smell) and believe whatever tall stories they’re told. But in the polite liberal mainstream, the reaction to all this agitation has been sincere and curious and careful. One senses that people are aware of the uneasy truth of which the CWF is trying to remind them. Hey, the Syncrude site may look like hell on earth, but it’s helping to keep the lights on in my kids’ school and the MRI machine thrumming at the local hospital.

This new awareness of interregional interdependence looks inevitable in retrospect, a plain matter of irresistible economic currents. CWF CEO Roger Gibbins and his co-author Robert Roach have a table in the report showing that net interprovincial migration to B.C. and Alberta from 1972-2007 comes to just over a million souls. The emphasis there is on the word “net”: that’s a count of the people who came and stayed, and doesn’t include those who retired back to Magog or Glace Bay, or those who put in just a few years in the oilpatch and took their human and financial capital back east with them. Economic imbalance has made us more familiar with one another. If you wanted to learn about life in Fort McMurray from second-hand accounts, you’d probably be better off going to Newfoundland than downtown Calgary.

My own hope is that ultimately we’ll reach a point at which the oilpatch is no longer seen as having a status morally distinct from that of other businesses. I’m referring to what I think of as the “Beverly Hillbillies” concept. Remember the theme song? One day ol’ Buddy Ebsen was shootin’ at some food, and up from the ground came a-bubblin’ crude. People still think of oil and gas jobs and revenues as essentially unearned in a way that their own paycheque is not, and their leaders are perpetually tempted to make policy on that basis. This surely accounts for at least some of the contrast between our extreme concern over the environmental “impact” or “footprint” of oil and gas extraction, and our relatively blithe acceptance of the impact of manufacturing Camaros.

We shouldn’t let Ebsenism influence whatever judgments we make about regulation of the petroleum business. The oilpatch isn’t distinguishable from other kinds of mining or manufacture, or even service businesses, in the degree to which it involves risk, innovation, or scientific sophistication. This is particularly true of the oil sands, and still more true of the technical layers of the industry—the servicing and construction and supply businesses (and, yes, the environmental monitoring and remediation businesses too)—that surround and sustain the core enterprises of exploration and extraction. It would be nice if when the patch was mentioned, people thought not just of Imperial and Shell but Safety Boss and Packers Plus.