Chris Pecora

Leaving Canada…

...won’t get our oil to market.

By Fred Stenson

The desire to leave Canada comes and goes in Alberta. But not in all Albertans. In December 2018, the pollster Research Co. tested the strength of Alberta secessionism and found that 69 per cent of the Albertans they asked actually liked being Canadian. Mario Canseco, president of Research Co., noted that this was about the same result as in similar polls in 2014 and 2016. So maybe I’m wrong with my first sentence up there. Maybe Albertan secessionism doesn’t come and go, as much as it persists in 31 per cent of Albertans and not in the rest. Maybe it’s the level of commotion and the heat of the anger that changes rather than secessionism itself.

Back in the 1930s, William Aberhart and his Social Creditors wanted to leave Canada, because the federal government had the silly notion that Alberta should pay back money it had borrowed from banks. Since then, secessionist high tides have been related to oil and gas. I’ll fess up that I myself proclaimed secessionist sentiments in the 1970s when Peter Lougheed and Pierre Trudeau were locked in a duel over whether the rest of Canada should pay the world price for Alberta oil. The world price had shot up because of OPEC and fears the planet was running out of the stuff. I was with Peter Lougheed all the way. It’s our oil, so of course we should get the world price for it, in Canada and elsewhere. Clear as glass.

But I never got much further with my separation fervour than an argument about whether Alberta’s grievances could be likened to the Highland Clearances. I was trounced in the debate by an aggrieved Scotsman, and I’ve been afraid of aggrieved Scotsmen ever since.

The most recent case of secessionism is rooted in Alberta’s inability to get its oil to market. Mostly this is our bitumen, which we mix with lighter petroleum so it will flow in a pipe. The oil sands mining and production facilities in Alberta’s north have grown and multiplied over the years, but there are no new pipelines into which the mounting product can flow. It’s constipation-like, this malaise, and the ancillary effect is that investors clamp down on their will to invest.

Alberta’s not having a particularly diverse industrial makeup with which to counter this situation means that parts of the Albertan economy have basically throttled on a tar ball. The sticky situation was inherited by the new NDP government in 2015. Since then, Rachel Notley and company have done their utmost to resolve/dissolve it. Though previous provincial and federal conservative governments had not been any more successful at building new pipelines, the NDP inability to get pipe in the ground was seen as a socialist problem. They’re good with babies and school lunches, but you can’t trust them with a big trade blockage. For that, you need a big hefty fellow with a pair of massive right fists.

If secessionists would like Alberta to join the United States, we would need a less British colonial name. Albitumen? Gumtana? Wedaho?

The NDP government has hardly been idle on this file. Premier Notley coaxed the Trudeau Liberals so hard that the feds bought the Trans Mountain Pipeline to facilitate its expansion. Since BC’s newish NDP government won’t play (tar)ball, that purchase didn’t result in more oil on the move. The Alberta secessionists are suggesting that this was Justin Trudeau’s intention all along: to buy it and not build it! So, JT risked his government by taking on public debt and infuriating his base just to piss Alberta off? I don’t think that makes much sense. It’s a bit like saying Alberta’s problem is on a par with the Highland Clearances.

Premier Notley did another amazing thing to assist the bitumen when she took a whack of Alberta oil off the market and reduced the price differential (between Alberta oil and US oil). Brilliant! Nor was she done. She also dealt with CP and CN to lease oil cars, so more Alberta oil could move by rail. Were the secessionists impressed? Not that I’ve heard.

Let’s not let this subject go by without examining what an independent Alberta might look like. First, if a Republic of Alberta were to build new pipelines, where would they go? My world atlas suggests Alberta is landlocked, independent or not. If BC and eastern Canada weren’t willing to take our oil before secession, what would their incentive be after the Alberta republic was declared? That leaves the 49th parallel as the only border a new pipe could cross, and I’m not sure mere desperation is going to help with the price differential. Wouldn’t the US have us “over a barrel,” so to speak?

One theory is that secessionists would like Alberta to join the US. For this purpose I guess we would need a less British colonial name. Albitumen? Gumtana? Wedaho? But what if, instead of becoming a state (the next Alaska), we became an unincorporated territory (the next Puerto Rico)? Maybe our revolutionary planners should take a look at the US response when Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. #

Fred Stenson’s most recent novel is Who By Fire (Doubleday). Other books include The Trade, Lightning and The Great Karoo.


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