Alberta, an oil- and gas-rich western province, has been was responsible for entire Canada’s net employment growth in the past 12 months, adding 81,800 jobs while the rest of Canada lost 9,500. The trade surplus in Alberta stood at C$7.4 billion ($6.9 billion) in May, and made up for the deficit rung up everywhere else.
If such growth trends continue, Alberta would surpass Quebec to become Canada’s second-largest provincial economy in three years, according to Bloomberg.
“Alberta is already by far the strongest province economically, and higher oil prices will only exacerbate the regional split,” says Benjamin Reitzes, a senior economist at BMO Capital Markets.
Alberta’s growing power is putting energy ahead of manufacturing exports like Ontario’s cars and Quebec’s aircraft. But it’s also drawing tens of thousands of young people who are seeking energy jobs with some of the country’s best salaries.
This is a challenge for policy makers: Oil wealth has made the Canadian dollar stronger, squeezing Ontario and Quebec manufacturers. The central bank of Canada is keeping interest rates near historic lows, and is looking for a weaker currency to boost exports.
“We see a two-track economy,” says Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz. “Canada’s non-energy exports have disappointed, holding back growth. At the same time, energy exports have indeed been quite strong and we expect that to be a continuing trend.”
For decades, manufacturing has been at the heart of Canada’s economy and government policy. It was started by a 1965 pact to form a single market for autos between the US and Canada, and a 1988 free trade agreement to remove tariffs on goods traded by the two countries.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper says that Canada may see C$650 billion of resource projects over the next decade, for instance, the Enbridge Inc.’s C$6.5 billion Northern Gateway pipeline. This project would take Alberta bitumen to the Pacific Coast, thereby opening access to Asian markets and reducing Canada’s dependence on the US. Producers are also hoping for TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL pipeline, which would take Alberta’s oil to the US Gulf Coast refineries.
“Continued expansion of oil and gas production has resulted in increased revenues,” says Chief Operating Officer Keith Creel. “Looking at the balance of 2014, we see strong fundamentals on the demand side.”
According to Bank of Montreal, Alberta has been “effectively the lone driver” of recent housing starts, caused by population growth that has been the highest in more than three decades. Next year, the province’s per capita gross domestic product is estimated to reach C$88,000, which will be C$35,000 more than the rest of Canada.
The jobless rate in Alberta was 4.9% in June and has averaged 5.4% in the last five years. Whereas in Canada overall, it was 7.1% in June, and 7.5% in last five years.
“When you live in Alberta you have a sense of job security and of choice,” says Byrne Luft, vice president of operations for Manpower Canada in Toronto. Alberta’s labor market has gone “from a very tight unemployment rate to an extremely acute, critical point,” said Luft.
According to data by federal statistics agency, more people moved to Alberta from other provinces than to any other area. About 27,700 moved in 2011-12. Since 1976-77, Alberta has brought in a net 483,600 people from the rest of the country, whereas Quebec saw an outflow of 465,400 people in that period. Ontario saw a net inflow of 63,200 people, which is 13% of Alberta’s total.
Output from Alberta’s oil sands will more than double to 4.1 million barrels a day by 2025 from 2013, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. The value of exports of crude oil derived from bitumen has almost doubled to C$81.7 billion in 2013 from C$42.8 billion in 2009.
According to Bank of America Corp. data, Alberta’s bonds due in 7-10 years yielded 2.63% on July 21, compared with 2.79% for similar-maturity Ontario debt.
Alberta pays 60 basis points above comparable federal debt to borrow money for 7-10 years. This is the lowest spread among Canada’s 10 provinces. Investors ask for 80 basis points from Ontario and 81 basis points from Quebec to hold debt of that maturity.
“Canada is becoming a tale of two cities, Toronto and Calgary,” says Jack Mintz of the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy. “I don’t think growth in Alberta means other places are worse off,” he said. Ontario has lost manufacturing competitiveness to China, the US and Mexico, he said.
In a review of prosperity across 24 global cities conducted by the Toronto Region Board of Trade, Calgary rated higher than Toronto. Paris was ranked first. Calgary was second on superior growth for income and jobs, along with lower taxes, and Toronto was in third place.
Alberta’s growth marks both a revolution for Canada’s economy as well as a throwback to the days when the country relied on the fur trade. Even today Canada remains dependent on exports of such staple goods.
According to Peter Buchanan, CIBC World Markets economist, oil as a staple export has more staying power than the beaver pelts that once fed Europe’s fashion industry. “Fur hats come and go in fashion, but it’s harder to do without oil,” he said.