Mary Moran is president and CEO of Calgary Economic Development.
In light of recent dire headlines about the Alberta economy, it's important to examine another perspective. I don't dispute the facts and definitely don't want to play down the plight of many suffering Albertans, but there is another story that needs to be told.
The energy sector directly accounts for roughly a quarter of the Alberta economy on a GDP basis, and this sector has been beleaguered by oil prices that have fallen more than 70 per cent since mid-2014. However, despite this and the related job losses, other parts of the province's economy continue to grow and add jobs. As a result, overall employment in Alberta is down just 0.6 per cent from a year ago.
With population growth (including net migration of more than 36,000 people to Alberta from across Canada and around the world over the past 12 months), Alberta's unemployment rate has now risen to the national average of 7 per cent. If history is any indicator, many of the people displaced from the energy sector will invigorate other parts of our economy: For example, Albertans started more than 40,000 new businesses in 2015.
During its most recent period of rapid growth, the energy industry may have overexpanded, partly in response to bullish oil-price predictions. Current prices are unsustainable for many other oil-producing regions and countries, too, but prices will eventually recover. When they do, Alberta producers will have lowered costs to become more competitive.
Even with technological advances that lower the cost of renewable energy, Canadians depend on oil and natural gas for our high standard of living, including essentials such as transportation and home heating. Most Canadians don't realize that we import oil because of the lack of pipeline infrastructure from west to east. The proposed Energy East pipeline presents a real opportunity to keep oil revenue in Canada.
Canada's producers in Alberta operate in one of the most highly regulated and environmentally respectful energy jurisdictions in the world. Sadly, it's rare for Canadians to have the opportunity to visit an oil sands operation, or even to see an image of the non-intrusive steam-assisted gravity drainage operations commonly used by producers such as Cenovus or Suncor, as the process takes place underground. I suspect many would be surprised to learn about the minuscule above-ground operational footprint. This footprint services many hectares underground, but above ground, the land remains green and teeming with wildlife. Given this lack of exposure to the process, it's little wonder how few Canadians show support for the oil sands and the pipelines that would safely transport our oil to market.
Every day, Canadians drive, bike and walk above hundreds of thousands of kilometres of oil and gas pipelines, and yet Canadians, mystifyingly, push back against building more capacity, like the Energy East and Trans Mountain projects. These pipelines would improve energy security for all Canadians, while providing our energy industry with tidewater access to international markets, and so lessening our dependence on the United States as a customer and maximizing our yield on Canadian energy products. Not to mention that the pipelines would create tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in new tax revenue for education, health and other critical public services – for the benefit of every Canadian, not just Albertans. Pipelines are the solution for lessening the economic pain that all Canadians eventually feel during these unpredictable dips in oil pricing.
Even if this current down cycle seems more stubborn, Albertans are focusing on solutions. We know we don't emerge intact from these downturns by giving up, feeling sorry for ourselves or focusing on the negatives. While we aren't waiting for solutions from Ottawa (or even Edmonton), we do need our elected politicians at all levels to work to create an environment that supports Canada's energy sector – conventional and renewables alike. Frankly, the conversation for all Canadians needs to move beyond "renewables or conventional" to "renewables and conventional."
Alberta has become home to half a million more talented and educated people from all around the world over the past decade, not just because of energy industry jobs, but because we have increasingly vibrant urban centres, our Rocky Mountain playground and a great quality of life. Albertans have always been and will continue to be resilient innovators and entrepreneurs. I, for one, believe the Albertan dream is still alive.
I'd even suggest that if you own a business focusing on renewables, technology, agribusiness, transportation, logistics or creative industries, call me. Now might be the perfect time to take advantage of lower rent for commercial space, affordable housing and one of the world's youngest and most talented and diverse work forces.