The Discovery of “Black Gold”
Arguably the most important date in Canada’s industrial history was February 13, 1947. Until that date, small discoveries of oil and gas beneath Alberta had been made, and the modest reserves under Turner Valley constituted the British Empire’s largest oil field. But when Leduc Oil Well No. 1 belched black rings of smoke on that cold February morning, Alberta had hit the jackpot. A new economy for Alberta and all of Canada had begun.
American capitalists poured billions of dollars into Alberta as every valley, hill, and flat was surveyed. Seismic cut lines (lines cut through the forests by seismologists charting new oil fields) across northern Alberta are testimony to this frantic period. Early in 1948, a major field at Redwater was tapped, and farmers’ fields throughout the province were soon littered with beam pumps bobbing up and down. Calgary became the financial and administrative headquarters of the industry, while Edmonton—at the center of many of the fields—became the technological, service, and supply center.
By 1954, the eight major fields had been proven to contain eight billion barrels of recoverable crude oil; the Leduc-Woodbend field alone had 1,278 wells, and Pembina had 1,700. But nothing came close to the staggering resources of the Athabasca Oil Sands in northern Alberta, where one trillion barrels of oil lay—more than all the proven reserves of conventional oil on earth. By 1967, Alberta was producing 67 percent of Canada’s crude oil and 87 percent of its natural gas.
Each of the major fields needed services, and towns such as Drayton Valley, Swan Hills, High Level, and Rainbow Lake sprang up in otherwise unsettled areas. In less than a decade, the province’s population doubled to more than one million.
In the early 1970s, despite abundant resources and frenzied activity in Alberta, the eastern Canadian provinces were importing oil from overseas, taking advantage of low prices obtained, most notably, from the oil-exporting countries of the Middle East. But then the Arab oil ministers got smart, banding together to form the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). OPEC began demanding $6 a barrel—up from less than $2—and the price of oil quadrupled within three months. Suddenly, cheap, foreign oil was a thing of the past, and Alberta—after decades of feeling snubbed by the eastern provinces—held a trump card. With enormous reserves of oil and constitutional control over all of it, Alberta braced itself for the coming boom. The value of the province’s petroleum resources tripled almost overnight; within another four years, it quadrupled again.
A change in government roughly coinciding with the oil boom also contributed to Alberta’s success. For 36 years, the agricultural-based Social Credit party had controlled Alberta. But in 1971, the Conservative Party—led by Peter Lougheed—came to power. Lougheed was an uncompromising leader who cared little about what the powers in the eastern provinces thought of his policies. Described by many as an Albertan sheik, he tripled oil-royalty rates for the province, requiring Alberta’s producers to pay the province 65 cents out of every dollar earned from the oil. The federal government refused to allow the oil companies to deduct those royalties on their federal income tax returns, and many major oil companies pulled out of Alberta. But not for long. Alberta had the goods, and with incentives from the government, the companies returned. This incident was only a slight hiccup in Lougheed’s vision of a new and powerful west.
Revenues were flowing into the provincial coffers at $6,000 per minute; more millionaires were created than at any other time in Canadian history; and Calgary and Edmonton became two of North America’s greatest boomtowns and the center of world oil technology. Calgary became the fastest-growing city in the country—a city of dreams, where no expense was spared and to where the power and wealth of eastern provinces moved.
After the 1970s Boom
The latter part of the 20th century was a quiet time. World oil prices steadied in the late 1970s, and international oil companies spent money elsewhere. But the boom’s impact on the province continued to be positive. The Heritage Savings Trust Fund—a legacy of Lougheed’s days—amassed fortunes in oil royalties to be spent on facilities for the people of Alberta. Kananaskis Country was the most grandiose creation of the fund, while other facilities, including interpretive centers, urban park systems, and museums, continue to preserve the province’s natural and human history.
Self-made millionaires, who often came from humble beginnings, poured their enormous wealth back into the province that had made them rich. The philanthropies of oilman Eric Harvie, including the Glenbow Foundation, Banff Centre for the Arts, and Calgary Zoo, totaled at least $100 million. In 1978, Edmonton hosted the Commonwealth Games, and in 1988, Calgary hosted the Winter Olympic Games, both events providing boosts to Alberta’s economy.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition