Yesterday two of my Facebook friends posted a link to a piece defending Alberta’s oil industry. The piece was written by Rany Pompetti and attempts to defang any arguments made by those who oppose the oil industry, but does not succeed (https://www.facebook.com/randy.pompetti/posts/10153368453187946). Instead it gets muddled down in its inability to decide on who its audience is; makes some borderline conspiracy theorist accusations against the United States; and, in general, does not address the challenges the industry faces and how it could do better. My goal with this post will be to look at the arguments made by Mr. Pompetti and point out their fallacies and at the end of the article offer a stronger argument that could be used to help convince Canadians to continue to support the development of Alberta’s oil industry.
Before I get started on this, however, I would like to make my position clear. I consider myself to be on the far-left of the political spectrum, by that I mean I am strongly anti-capitalist. I have no love for oil companies or their rapacious ways. This ideological bent does put me squarely on the side of the less fortunate, the economically marginalized and it is this positioning that makes me a supporter of the oil industry. My own experience and observations have shown me that, at least in good times, if a person who needs work can get to Alberta and can labour physically for 12 hours a day, they can prosper. Alberta (and maybe Saskatchewan), I consider to be the last refuge of the working-class. Not because of unions or strong representation, but because (during good times) working-class labour, the one commodity this class has to sell, is extremely valuable. On a personal note in the past I have worked in the industry (seismic) and that I have many friends and family members who still work in the industry. In addition, the industry is one of the only things that keeps my hometown, and many like it, alive.
Mr. Pompetti begins his piece by addressing his “fellow Canadians” and goes on to describe Canada’s climatic extremes, our relatively small population, and the fact that Canada is responsible for “0.5% of the pollution generated globally”.These observations lead Mr. Pompeii to conclude that in if all Canadians were to die the United States would begin mining and transporting Canadian oil. Thankfully all Canadians are not going to die. His point about the insignificance of Canada’s contribution is one Canada’s right has made many times. I think the idea of morality is missing from this argument. If something is wrong, one doesn’t do it. Canada doesn’t have the death penalty, not because abstaining from killing our criminals makes a real dent in the overall number killed, but because our elected representatives have said it is wrong.
Mr Pompetti goes on to claim that the opposition to Canadian oil production is “a well-organized attempt to keep our Canadian oil land locked so that we are forced to sell to the U.S. and to the U.S. only and then at a very discounted price”.This claim is an allusion to opposition to oil pipelines. Let’s look at these proposed pipelines and see if Mr. Pompetti’s accusations can be substantiated. Let’s start with the Keystone XL, a pipeline that would run from Northern Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. If the goal of the United States is to keep Canadian oil land locked then allowing a pipeline to run through its centre to a warm port in Texas would not be a good idea. So opposition here may not be a secretive attempt by US foundations to keep Canadian oil land locked as Mr. Pompeii claims, but merely based upon economic interest: we live in a capitalist world and there is no economic reason to assist a foreign nation. (This argument does not account for the large percentage of oil sands development funded by American based companies).
Opposition to the Northern Gateway Pipeline and the Energy East pipeline is not discussed, but I think a strong case in favour of both these pipelines could be made. Disregarding Mr. Pompetti’s conspiracy theory one could argue that in the case of Northern Gateway, the future of the interior is dependent upon a strong oil industry. By this I mean that every small town in BC’s interior relies upon the men (and some women) doing stints on rigs or in Fort Mac Missing from this argument, however, is opposition to the pipeline from First Nations. This opposition must be taken seriously as the First Nations are not going anywhere and the Supreme Court has given the nations a say over what happens in their territories. Given that BC has not defined these territories through treaties, a massive problem exists.
As for Energy East one should argue the current mode of oil transportation in Canada is unsafe. Mr. Pompetti and his supporters could note the tragedy of Lac-Magantic to illustrate that lives could have been saved if Energy East was being used. Perhaps a discussion of royalties to the provinces involved would help to ease some concerns, even if they are symbolic royalties.
The next part of Mr. Pompetti’s rant discusses the importance of oil industry to the Canadian economy. At one point he links a decrease in oil revenues to your grandchild’s class having “a 50:1 student to teacher ratio because our education system is underfunded and the government coffers are bare”. Since Mr. Pompetti is ranting about a provincial program, you might think his argument is limited to Alberta, but no, he is arguing that David Suzuki, Al Gore, and Barack Obama (the trifecta of oil sand boogeymen) are going to kill the Canadian economy as a whole.
Canada’s energy sector is important, but not that important. In 2010 the sector accounted for 6.8% of Canadian GDP. In that same year it directly employed 264000 people.These are important jobs (I will get back to how important soon) and 6.8% is an important contribution to our GDP, but without them I do not believe the entire society of Canada would collapse as does Mr. Pompetti.
So, Mr. Pompetti is angry and makes the angry person’s uncritical argument supporting his position. Fair enough. But his arguments are generally straw men and would not stand up to a reasoned debate with those who oppose them. I stated at the outset of my piece that I would offer an argument stronger than Mr. Pompetti’s and my argument is all about the jobs the industry creates.
One thing that those of use on the left are supposed to care about is the less fortunate. Of the trifecta lambasted by Mr. Pompetti, Al Gore and Barack Obama should, given their ideology, support strong jobs for the working-class (David Suzuki is someone who has dedicated his life to the environment, so he is not obligated to care about the less fortunate).Likewise, Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair should, as members of the progressive left, want jobs that can help the less fortunate rise up. The support Bernie Sanders has been receiving in his current presidential bid shows just how powerful this theme is at the moment.
Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that when I was poor and when things were most hopeless for me, a trip to Calgary and a two days of job hunting landed me with the highest paying job I had ever had. Not hourly, but with all of the overtime, when that cheque was put into my bank account at the end of the month, I knew I could survive.
This story has been repeated thousands of times for Canadians from every province and territory. If you can work (at least during boom times) the oil industry will find a spot for you. You will be able to support your family back home. Your chances at improving your life will increase exponentially.
That is the story Canada’s oil industry should be telling. Do a commercial highlighting how remittances from the oil patch have kept many small towns alive. That way when Justin Trudeau or Thomas Mulclair talk about halting development, the oil industry can highlight the real consequences of this halt.
Mr. Pompetti and I are kind of on the same side. His anger is understandable. Some of our politicians have demonized the industry without acknowledging its benefits. Where I disagree with Mr. Pompetti is on where the emphasis should be. Canada will not collapse without the oil industry. The United States isn’t engaged in some shadowy conspiracy to marginalize oil industry profits. But the oil industry is a refuge for low-wage workers from across Canada who want to make a better life. The oil industry offers hope to the working-class and hope to small towns, hope our progressive politicians and unions refuse to acknowledge. And this, I believe, should be the message the oil industry sends to Canadians.