June 20, 2005


Alberta is about to get wildly rich and powerful: What does that mean for Canada? (STEVE MAICH, June 13, 2005, MacLeans)

At Suncor Energy's Millennium oil sands project, just north of Fort McMurray, Alta., the unmistakable odour of black gold drifts up from the ground and hangs thick in the air. Everywhere around you, water pooled in footprints, tire ruts and potholes carries the telltale rainbow sheen of oil. "The smell of economic progress," jokes Brad Bellows, a spokesman for Suncor, playing host on a damp spring afternoon. But it's much more than that. It's the smell of raw power -- the kind that comes from having plenty of what the rest of the world can't live without. It's the smell of a resource locked in the ground for millions of years and which now has the potential to shape the future of a nation, for better or for worse.

Suncor's extraction plant on the bank of the Athabasca River looks like a science fiction movie set -- hundreds of kilometres of steel pipe twisted into incomprehensible knots around hulking industrial buildings, storage tanks and smokestacks. The whole scene is bathed in a constant haze of steam and exhaust. Two other such plants are now operating within an hour's drive of here, and several more are scheduled to commence operations over the next few years, all to exploit what may be the biggest petroleum deposit anywhere in the world, a sea of oil-saturated soil covering an area the size of New Brunswick.

Already, one million barrels of petroleum a day are being spun out of the sand and pumped south, and that number is projected to triple within the next decade. During that time, the oil sands will generate about 100,000 new jobs and billions of dollars in royalties and taxes to various levels of government, not to mention billions more in dividends to investors. But the significance of the oil sands beyond Canada's borders may be even greater.

Energy has become a central obsession of international politics in recent years, as exploding economic growth in Asia and America's ongoing love affair with gas-guzzling vehicles have accelerated the drain on world petroleum reserves. Terrorism, trade, the war in Iraq, nuclear diplomacy -- all of it, on some level, is related to the international preoccupation with energy, and access to affordable oil. So if Canada is to play a more significant global role in the years ahead, experts agree it will be due to the reeking, doughy black soil in northern Alberta, and the rest of the world's keen desire to share it. "The oil sands give Canada one of the single greatest advantages of any state in the Western world," says Paul Chastko, a University of Calgary historian who recently published a book called Developing Alberta's Oil Sands. "It gives Canada the ability to supply all of North America for the next 50 years without touching a drop of imported oil." It is, in short, an economic engine and political lever that any nation would desperately love to have.

Such strategic reserves are too important to be entrusted to an unreliable state like Canada.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 20, 2005 4:14 PM

Wasn't there an Alastair MacLean novel about this, oh, say, 30 years ago?

Posted by: Mike Morley at June 20, 2005 4:31 PM

"Well then, it's treaty time!"

Posted by: Luciferous at June 20, 2005 4:39 PM

Well, we encouraged a successful secessionist movement in Panama when the existing government wouldn't meet our demands. And these days, Canada seems to be doing its best to become a corrupt caudillo led kleptocracy with a comic opera military top heavy with generals.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at June 20, 2005 6:02 PM

Such strategic reserves are too important to be entrusted to an unreliable state like Canada.

They're not. They're entrusted to Alberta.

Last time oil really boomed, the Eastern Canadian Establishment swooped in to legislate control back to themselves. This time around, with the memory still fresh, Alberta would be more likely to declare independence, tacitly condonded by the US, than to surrender the fruits of their labor.

Posted by: at June 20, 2005 6:05 PM

They were murmuring "secession" 2 years ago at a confab.

Posted by: Sandy P at June 20, 2005 6:21 PM

"They were murmuring 'secession' 2 years ago at a confab."

They were indeed, and the resentment in the western provinces against the central Canadian government runs high. Particularly grating, from their point of view, is the bi-lingual requirement for all public notices, signs, etc.: quite an expensive luxury in areas where 95% of the population cannot speak a word of French. Secession is real possibility.

Posted by: Josh Silverman at June 20, 2005 8:14 PM

One of Chretien's last acts as P.M. was to spend $750 million annually to teach French to western Canadians. I'm sure most of the money was spent on setting up the bureaucracy, and hiring French teachers - both being staffed by Quebecers - and paid for by Albertans' federal taxes.

Secession - I'll vote for it when it comes to the ballot.

From Wild Rose country - Alberta.

Posted by: obc at June 20, 2005 9:14 PM

Free Alberta, Now!

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at June 20, 2005 11:55 PM

It's time for ALBERTa to be freed from the CANada.

Posted by: Dave W. at June 21, 2005 12:56 AM

Fools. It isn't Alberta you want. It's Newfoundland. Lots of oil, plenty of fish thrown in and some really nice people with a great sense of humour and catchy folk songs.

Forget Alberta. Take Newfoundland. Please.

Posted by: Peter B at June 21, 2005 5:59 AM

Where's Red Green from? Dammit, we need him!

Posted by: Governor Breck at June 21, 2005 7:51 AM


Laugh all you want to but Newfoundland with its large unexplored areas and vast amounts of seacoast would be quite profitable under American hegemony.

As for Alberta, Peter Pocklington was heading a secessionist movement a decade or so ago during the last oil run-up. It's long overdue.

Posted by: bart at June 21, 2005 8:39 AM

And the icing on the cake for Canada will be the advent of global warming, assuming it beats down the coming ice age. So let's get all that oil out of there ASAP and burn the crap out of it.

Posted by: Genecis at June 21, 2005 9:41 AM

Newfoundland? The place my ancestors fled in favor of Philadelphia? Thanks, I think we'll pass.

Posted by: joe shropshire at June 21, 2005 10:15 AM

The best way to facilitate any Canadian breakup is to do nothing to enable it. Let nature take its course. It would be unseemly for the US to aide in the dismembering of a peaceful neighbor and longterm ally. Any involvement would only hurt our reputation. We get what we want from Ottawa anyway for the most part.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at June 21, 2005 11:23 AM

Who is laughing? It's perfectly possible, but after years living in a country that has always had secessionists of one sort or another and still keeps on truckin', you learn not to panic.

What does interest me is why so many here think it would be good for the States. I understand the schadenfreude and sense of historical unfinished busines, but what concrete is in this for you? The oil is coming your way in any event, so why do you need the political headache?

They have a very long way to go. I know Orrin sees countries dissolving next year all around him, but it doesn't happen that easily, nor as felicitously. There are no Alberta big shots on board yet (I'd bet a lot you are wrong on Pocklington). There are some minor names, like here, but you may notice there is no talk at all about the States and they seem to be quite uninterested in solidarity with their oppressed Western brothers. Oil does that to you, I guess. So, what's in it for you?

And, Bart, although I readily believe the U.S. could cure Aids in Africa, bring peace to the Middle East and contain the Chinese menace, all within a humming economy, you could not make Newfoundland profitable. Not even America can square a circle.

Posted by: at June 21, 2005 12:54 PM

Sorry. Me to Bart.

Posted by: Peter B at June 21, 2005 12:56 PM


Re: Newfoundland
One word: Aquaculture

I distinctly remember Pocklington from the heyday of Peter Lougheed, after all he owned the Edmonton Oilers at the time.

Albertans benefit economically by being set free from the anchor that is Eastern Canada. The action of setting them free makes them wealthier, benefitting everyone who provides goods and services to previously overtaxed, overregulated Albertans. It's just a simple multiplier effect.

Having more of the world's energy resources under the American flag is always a good thing.

Posted by: bart at June 21, 2005 1:37 PM

Time to resume our manifest destiny!

Posted by: Bob at June 21, 2005 1:49 PM


Aquaculture...in Newfoundland. Boy, that'll give them second thoughts in Alberta. Thanks.

Posted by: Peter B at June 21, 2005 4:38 PM


The two are separate issues. One would not engage in aquaculture in Alberta any more than one would drill for oil in Newfoundland.

You claim that Americans could not make Newfoundland profitable. I provided a simple, if long-tail, means by which much of Newfoundland, which has lots of unpolluted coastline could be made profitable, and you choose to relate this back to Alberta, when no intention on my part to equate the two existed.

Newfoundland is poor because the Canadian government is wedded to statist economic models and laughable non-scientific anti-human environmentalist policies. A Newfoundland which sold off its shoreline to American food processors to invest in aquaculture would be up to its eyeballs in salmon, scallops and lobster in less than a decade.

Posted by: bart at June 21, 2005 7:29 PM

Whence comes this fascination with Newfoundland? It's a whole other secret side of you, Bart. Almost like finding out you like to meet other men for nice dinners and excursions to concerts and zoos ... oh wait, never mind. Seriously, it's one of those beautiful places where it's tough to make a living. Not even pisspot-poor Irish like my mother's folk would stay there any longer than they needed to scrape together passage to the States. I imagine that it does something to a place, even a beautiful place, when it is a place so many people flee.

Posted by: joe shropshire at June 21, 2005 8:39 PM

I like the Newfies, but they're a second West Virginia.

Posted by: Ptah at June 21, 2005 10:42 PM