Professional sport is a big busi- ness in Alberta. In the hockey rink and the football stadium, the province has deeply rooted and passionate rivalries in sports.
An old sport has ignited new pas- sions in the province. But this sport isn’t played on ice or gridiron. It’s played on the front pages of the news- papers, across the tables at Tim Hortons and in the corporate board- rooms. The sport is called ”œthe future of Alberta’s energy sector.”
The first team ”” Team Industry ”” has some elite corporate athletes like EnCana, Nexen, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. and Suncor. Supporting players are the prominent industry asso- ciations like the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and the Petroleum Services Association of Canada (PSAC). The supporting players never win MVP trophies, but they show up for every game and give 100 percent.
The other team ”” call it Team Fair Share ”” is made up of those with little sympathy for the oil and gas industry. They see the corporate bonuses, hear reports of record profits, watch the massive office towers going up in downtown Calgary ”” and shed not a tear. They have no real marquee-type players, but they have passion. Their motto: The energy sector has been given a free ride for too long.
As the game begins, Team Industry comes out swinging with a compelling case that the oil and gas sector is the lifeblood of the economy. Few can deny that Alberta has become an economic titan on the back of its energy resources. By some estimates, oil and gas extraction ”” both directly and indi- rectly ”” accounts for as much as 50 percent of the provincial GDP. Don’t wreck a good thing! The fans go wild.
But Team Fair Share gets on the board with a couple of quick points. Crude oil is closing in on $US100 a barrel, and the shares in most of these corporate all-stars are either at or near record highs. The game evens up.
The coach of Team Industry pulls the referees aside and points out some unfair plays. Sure, oil prices are at record highs, but the headline West Texas Intermediate crude (WTI) is priced in US dollars and is a very light, very ”œsweet” oil (i.e., little sulphur). Alberta’s oil producers are pumping or drilling little sweet oil; most of it is heavy or bitumen from the oil sands. These varieties are sold at a consider- able discount to the benchmark WTI. And the sky-high loonie has eroded much of the export value.
This is a huge setback for Team Fair Share, but they come back charging with social and environmental con- cerns. Many Albertans actually want to slow the pace of development in the energy sector, particularly in the oi sands. The city of Fort McMurray has been straining for years under the pres- sures of massive inflows of people. Most of the new arrivals are young, male, sin- gle and making a lot of money ”” a combination that can have explosively negative social outcomes. And when evidence of environmental degradation comes running onto the field, Team Fair Share fans go delirious with joy.
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Team Industry presses in with a stunning offensive drive ”” a reminder of how much the energy sector con- tributes to the public purse. The energy sector has contributed tens of billions of dollars to provincial government cof- fers primarily through corporate taxes and resource revenues. There is no question that Alberta has been able to crawl out of debt years ahead of sched- ule on the value of those hydrocarbons.
A few more points are gained when Team Industry explains that natural gas ”” not crude oil””has been the primary wealth generator in Alberta over the last decade. Gas prices are in the tank at the moment ”” something to which Albertans and the media pay little attention. The industry is in serious trouble. Now the game gets interesting.
The fans in the crowd are fairly evenly split, and some nasty names are called. A beer cup is thrown. Pushing and shoving ensues.
Some Team Industry fans are down- right angry. The hospitality industry is a good example. Thirty-eight percent of hotel rooms in the province ”” most of them in rural areas ”” are completely dependent on field crews and rig work- ers. Any downturn in the already feeble natural gas sector will leave a lot of those rooms vacant.
But Team Fair Share boosters are mad, too. Sure, without the energy companies to actually get those oil and gas molecules out of the ground, the resource is worthless. But those mole- cules belong to the people of Alberta, and energy companies should stop act- ing as if the resource is theirs.
Unlike hockey or football, this game never really ends. There are half- time shows and periodic rain delays. Fans on both sides suspect the game is fixed. Occasionally the scoreboard breaks down and experts are called in to fix it. But eventually the players get back to the game, the fans start throw- ing beer cups and Alberta’s passions are fuelled. The fact that the game never ends may suit Albertans just fine. No one ever really wins ”” but with so much at stake, no one can ever bear to lose, either.