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Alberta: the next 100 years
An oil boom, an influx of new workers, and new train lines. It’s not only Alberta’s past, but its future as well, says author Fred Stenson.
In the year leading up to Alberta’s centennial, I was asked to write a few essays about how we became a province and what the first hundred years were like. Now, asked to project into the province’s second hundred years, I am like the animal in the cartoon who runs off the cliff and hangs in mid-air with a puzzled look. The saving grace is that no one else has visited the future either. One can neither be proven conclusively wrong nor right.
In my essays about Alberta’s past, I noted that the prairie route chosen for the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s (Winnipeg, Regina, Medicine Hat, Banff) had the effect of hauling the whole history of Alberta south. When I look beyond the present, what I see is an almost exact reversal. History will be dragged back north by the brute power of $90 billion worth of oil sands investment. Ironically, history will be returning to the Peace and Athabasca, where it was in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, after Peter Pond and Alexander McKenzie ventured there and touched off a beaver-trapping frenzy.
The story of the current oil sands boom has gotten out at about the speed that cold bitumen pours, and it is somewhat hard to understand given that there is seldom a newspaper that omits to mention it. I am currently at work writing an oil sands documentary for television whose producers have been told by Canadian networks that the story is too regional (while American networks are expressing considerable interest). This proves my point. What could be regional about the biggest industrial undertaking on the planet? What’s regional about the biggest accumulation of petroleum left on earth, now that the conventional oil is well on its way to squandered? Never a very big player in world oil, Canada has leapt to second place in petroleum reserves by nation. This will affect our next hundred years more than any other single factor.
So what will the oil sands-fueled future look like? This depends on whether the Alberta Government chooses to throw or catch. If the latter, then the oil sands will look a lot like the industrial booms of the past. Fort McMurray’s population will shift from 60,000 to 600,000. The town that has fought gamely to be a stable community despite booms and busts will have to sandbag non-stop against floods of population and tides of change.
Out in the actual oil sands, cubic miles of overburden and ore will be on the move. The camps that build the projects will be vast anthills. At the overlapping shift-weeks end, there will mighty outpourings of planes, buses, and pick-up trucks, most of them headed to Edmonton for frantic R&R.
Edmonton will get enough sidewash from the oil sands to grow quickly, but it won’t be healthy growth. Think of a cross between Tijuana and Las Vegas. Much of Edmonton’s financial gain will go to policing. Calgary will not grow as fast but will not shrink either, being able to convince another generation that it is the logical centre of petroleum management in Canada.
As for Alberta south of Calgary, look out. Your oil and gas is apt to be gone and you will be back in the arms of agriculture. Whether that delivers Eden or the Grapes of Wrath will depend on the temperature of the planet and of U.S.-Canadian relations.
All this could look entirely different.
If a proactive stance were chosen instead, the Alberta Government could field funds from oil sands operators and various other sources, including itself, to build a high-speed rail system linking all Alberta’s large and medium-sized cities. People who worked in the oil sands would then have a choice of several places to live. The wealth and the burden could both be shared. In this scenario, Fort McMurray grows at a more sensible, comfortable rate, while Grand Prairie, Red Deer, Edmonton, and Calgary also grow in a healthy fashion. Rather than being Las Vegas or Tijuana North, Edmonton gets to be—well, Edmonton, only bigger.
Lethbridge, being too far away to attract commuters, would be free to become something else. Slightly removed from the grinding wheels of commerce, it could become a centre for research, education, culture, and innovation. It could be as Austin is to Texas: a milder, more thoughtful and urbane place, that thinks on behalf of the rest of us. It sounds lovely. I think I’ll move there.
As for non-urban Alberta, a good and possible future would be an understanding that the original native grass prairie is the only thing that has a hope against global warming. We would preserve what we have left and spend some of that Lethbridge think-tank time figuring out how to use the existing prairie to make more prairie. Ranching, so under the gun at the end of century one, would be a big winner in century two given this scenario.
All this may sound too good to be true, but the other scenario, with a overburdened north and an under-employed south, sounds too bad to be true. To stand back and allow such a result would be poor stewardship of Alberta’s last great bonanza, enough so that the inertia might be overcome. If enough Albertans demand it, the effort would be made—unless we really have ceased to be a democracy.
As for myself, I think I will stay in Alberta, where I have always been, not so because of the great opportunities but because I like it. I would in fact rather that Alberta did not change agreat deal. But if it must, I hope we will have the sense to change well.
Fred Stenson, BA’72, is a Giller Prize-nominated novelist, an essayist, and an unofficial Alberta historian. Originally from a farm near Waterton, he has recently moved from Calgary to Cochrane.