This article was first published on cbc.ca as part of the ‘Canada: A People’s History’.
CALGARY, AB – In the 1970s, Alberta was hit by a modern-day gold rush. Oil prices soared and adventurers flooded into the province in a frenzied hunt to strike it rich.
For geologist Jim Gray, these were the glory days in Alberta when the pioneer spirit was alive and well.
“Lets drill that well. Lets take that land. Lets not talk about this for the rest of the day. And lets not have a bloody committee. And if we fail, well fail big. But if we win, were gonna win big.”
Gray did win big. He and his partner, John Masters, discovered Elmworth Deep Basin, a gas field west of Grande Prairie, Alberta, which turned out to be the second largest in North America.
“It was a great moment of self-satisfaction, especially when you find it where everyone else said not to go,” said Gray, who formed the company Canadian Hunter.
Gray – a devout Mormon from Kirkland Lake, Ontario – quickly joined the wild pace of Calgary’s oil world.
“There are over seven hundred oil and gas companies here,” Gray said. “Its heavy competition. Some people cant keep up with it. We’ve got a high incidence of social stress. Divorce, drinking, suicide. But there’s a lot of us who thrive on it.”
Imperial Oil lay claim to Alberta’s first big oil strike in 1947. But the oil frenzy more than two decades later would be touched off by an event half way around the world.
On October 6, 1973, Egyptian tanks crossed into Israeli-occupied territory and Syrian troops moved towards Jerusalem. Israel, backed by the United States, rebuffed the attack.
On October 16, there was a meeting in Kuwait at which Arab oil producers discussed the prospect of using their oil resources as leverage, hoping to get western nations to back away from their commitment to Israel. They cut production initially by 25 per cent, with plans for further cuts of 5 per cent a month until a Middle Eastern settlement could be reached.
The price of oil quickly soared; it had been selling for $3 (U.S.) a barrel, and it climbed to $15 almost overnight. By the end of the decade, the price was almost $40 a barrel as OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, maintained its quotas and Iran, a major oil exporter, erupted in civil war.
In Alberta, the oil boom was creating more multi-millionaires than anytime before in Canadian history. Albertas Bible belt image was replaced by the notion of oil wealth, with all its attendant perks and vices.
For a while, it seems as if money really did grow on trees. And everyone wanted a piece of the action.
During the 1970s, the provinces population increased by a third. Four thousand people a month flood into the province, looking for a share of this modern-day gold rush.
“We would work seven days a week, sixteen, twenty hours a day,” said oil rig worker Dwayne Mather. “I was young) and full of all kinds of ambition and it was great, a great time.”
The Alberta oil industry boomed, transforming the cities of Calgary and Edmonton
At the height of the boom, Calgary issued more than $1 billion worth of construction permits annually, more than Chicago or New York. Apartment vacancy rates approached zero as Ontarians and Maritimers arrived daily in search of high-paying jobs.
The housing market boomed, oil stocks rose, and an entrepreneurial spirit, once exclusive to businessmen, was awakened in professors, lawyers, and dentists, who began speculating in real estate and experimenting with oil ventures.
At Calgary’s Petroleum Club, new Canadian millionaires rubbed shoulders with American oil company presidents. The big players swap tales and make deals. Jim Gray thrived on the competition.
“Everybody wanted to be in a big building. Everybody wanted to have a corporate airplane. Young people with two or three or four years experience were getting together with some other friends and starting their own little oil and gas company.”
But the frenzied greed of the Alberta oil boom would take its toll. By the early 1980s, too rapid expansion and a world-wide economic recession hit the industry hard.
As unpredictably as it began, the Alberta oil boom was over.
In 1982, Dome Petroleum, the country’s largest oil company, avoided collapse with a last-minute bailout package with Ottawa and the banks.
Within two years, mirroring trends elsewhere in the country, unemployment in the province rose from 4 to 10 per cent. For the first time in more than a decade, Alberta had more people leaving the province than coming in. The province led the nation in housing foreclosures, bankruptcies and suicides.
The Calgary Heralds classified section bulged with homes for sale, sometimes including the contents and cars. The city had 2.3 million square metres of vacant office space, and its real estate speculators and oil investors had reverted to their former careers as teachers, dentists, and taxi drivers.
In 1986, Alberta received another economic blow when world oil price declined steeply.
Alberta’s economic woes began to turn around in the late 1980s. The provincial government used enormous royalty revenues generated from oil and gas sales to diversify into the forestry sector.
By the mid-1990s, Alberta’s fortunes were on the rise again, thanks to the fiscally responsible Ralph Klein government and higher world prices for oil and natural gas.” – CBC.ca