The oilsands are good for Quebec

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The Gazette, Wednesday, February 15 , 2012

To see the country moving West, you have only to board a flight from Montreal to Calgary and hear almost nothing but French spoken in the waiting area at the gate.

On a full Air Canada flight on a weekday in mid-February, these Quebecers weren't going to Calgary for the Stampede, or to Banff to ski.

They were going to work in the oilpatch, where a person with a skilled trade - an electrician or a welder - makes well over $100,000 a year. It's the same in Alberta's housing industry, which is clamouring for carpenters and plumbers.

But many of these passengers were guys in suits - consulting engineers and the like - heading from home to work.

SNC-Lavalin, for instance, is a major player in Calgary and the oilsands, whose daily output of more than 1.1 million barrels per day now accounts for more than half of Canada's production of crude oil.

Oilsands production will double by 2015. Canada's proven reserves of 170 billion barrels are the third largest in the world - after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, and those are not stable democracies. Nor are they right next door to the United States, which buys 99 per cent of our exports of oil and gas. One Canadian pipeline company alone, Enbridge, ships more oil to the U.S. - 1.6 million barrels per day - than the Saudis do.

And make no mistake: TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast will be built eventually, because the U.S. needs the 800,000 barrels per day it will deliver. The opposition to it isn't about aquifers and agriculture in Nebraska, even though water and farming are hot-button issues.

These are just proxies for the oilsands, which a coalition of well-funded U.S. and Canadian interest groups still jeer as "the tarsands" and "dirty oil."

And it's about election-year politics in the U.S., which is why Barack Obama, in a bid to shore up his Democratic base, has kicked the Keystone can past November.

Meantime, a serious argument can be made that the U.S. is violating the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, in which the trade-off in the energy chapter, at the insistence of the Americans, was security of access for the U.S. in return for security of supply for Canada.

The celebrity protesters surrounding the White House and Obama's rejection of Keystone have raised the project's profile. Fully 78 per cent of Canadians, in a Nanos poll for Policy Options magazine, had heard of Keystone XL. That's astonishing name recognition for a commercial project that hasn't even been built yet.

But Canadians were also nearly evenly divided on the merits of it, with 44 per cent in favour and 41 per cent opposed. Typically, 66 per cent of Quebecers were against Keystone, even though only 60 per cent of them had ever heard of it.

Which brings us back to my fellow passengers on the flight to Calgary, and to a question: What's in the oilsands for Quebec?

The answer is: Plenty. Billions of dollars in goods and services, and thousands of jobs in both Alberta and Quebec.

A 2011 report by Bruce Carson, formerly head of the Calgary School for Energy and the Environment, projects that Quebec will receive $23 billion in economic benefits from oilsands production over the next 25 years.

Ontario stands to do even better, as Alberta's new premier, Alison Redford, pointed out in an important speech in Toronto last November.

"Over the next 25 years," she said, "Alberta-based companies will buy $55 billion of goods and services from Ontario."

It is estimated that over that 25-year period, 44 per cent of the economic benefits from the oilsands will be outside Alberta, and that the oilsands will create 450,000 jobs nationwide.

There's another set of numbers, both telling and remorseless, to be found in last week's release of data from the 2011 census:

Since 2006, Canada's population has grown by 5.9 per cent, with Alberta leading the way at a phenomenal growth rate of 10.8 per cent, followed by British Columbia at seven per cent and Saskatchewan at 6.7 per cent.

Ontario, for generations the motor of Canada's economic growth, slightly lags the national average at 5.7 per cent, while Quebec grew at 4.7 per cent.

But these indicators can be a bit misleading. Ontario, under-represented in the 308-seat House of Commons, will get 15 new seats in the new 338-seat House, bringing its total to 121 seats.

B.C. and Alberta will each get six more seats, for respective totals of 42 and 34.

When you add in Saskatchewan and Manitoba's 14 seats each, there will be 104 seats in the West.

Quebec, increasing to 78 seats from 75, will be exactly aligned to its 23-per-cent share of the population.

But the Ontario-Quebec consensus, which long ruled the roost of Confederation, has been broken.

In Ontario and the West, there will be a combined 225 seats in the new House, nearly three times as many as Quebec. This is the new Canadian majority, and it's where Stephen Harper built his own majority House.

Economic and political power are shifting decisively West. You don't even have to do the math. All you need to do is get on a plane.

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