I’m at Costco yesterday, on a Wednesday, looking at chicken breasts for thirteen bucks a pound. I haven’t bought chicken breasts in about eight years so I don’t know any better. Come to find out, through Twitter (@thatdylandavis) that chicken breasts at Costco in the States are about three bucks a pound. Even with the rate of inflation and the currency exchange, Canadians are getting screwed. I’m getting doubly screwed, because I don’t really even have thirteen bucks much less three bucks. I lost my job in the oil patch the day before. So here I am, going package by package wondering if I can get a lighter one to save a few dollars. I save a buck fifty.
Ten years ago I left grad school with a Masters in History and a high self-worth. Though I was unemployed for a year, I had achieved a life goal while staying home with my son during the first year of his life. My wife worked part time teaching education at Lee College. We had crippling debt, but we were happy. However, the rate of positions available in post-grad programs to obtain a Ph.D. in history was about two to one. That was challenging enough. I had an emphasis on German history and did not speak German – this was decidedly against my favor. Within a few years, it would get worse. Currently, according to the American Historical Association, the number of Ph.D. history students competing for one full time tenure track position is sixty-four to one.
I’ve been working for my family since I was a fetus. We have a business, which does moderately well, and though I’ve had issues with some aspects of it there’s no denying its success and the dedication of my family members who run it. I love the business, actually, as backward as it is. I know it quite well after twenty years of watching people suffer through it. But at the time I felt as I worked there part-time that every time I made a mistake – which was more often than I wished – I had to explain myself to four people. This was a bit like Office Space and the TPS report cover sheets. So despite the vast advantages of the job and where it could go I decided to jump off the ledge when a friend of mine from college called about a job in the oil patch. Low pay, but no relatives.
Because I was smarter than your average bear (you probably pulled that together if you made it to this page) I could run circles around those immediately around me and because my grandfather used to throw me from a Willys Jeep at twenty miles an hour to wrestle and rope a heifer, I was no stranger to hard work. After a year of traveling the world at the bottom rung they gave me an office with no window, twenty percent lower pay, and I said ‘thank you.’ I had my daughter by then and I was happy. That didn’t work out well, but they didn’t throw me overboard. They gave me something else to do, and I excelled. I worked all over, in different departments and found myself on a transfer to Canada – which I will never regret. And though I’m smarter than the average bear, I still got thrown overboard last Tuesday not because of my job performance, not because of a faux pas with clients not because of quality service, but because the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not want Canadian Oil Sands competing with their light oil imports to the United States.
I am less political in my old age (just turned 41 the week before I was let go) because I don’t see much to get excited about in the continuing polemical arguments that ignore the center mass of people that we should be paying attention to. However, I see my situation and the situation of a hundred thousand Albertans as the same. What exactly did we do wrong? We made a quality product and sold it at a reasonable price to the customer. That’s what we did wrong: we pissed off the Saudis.
I don’t quite understand why people dislike oil and gas. I mean…I get it on the environmental side. It’s not friendly, okay. What I mean is, why do people dislike me because I work in oil and gas? There was an artificial shortage in the 1970s, which OPEC created to try and change US policy on Israel (for more on this, see Daniel Yergin’s The Prize). This created a huge rise in prices that has not been seen since and was not the fault of the energy companies. This pressure was relieved when first, the Kingdom and OPEC changed stances to recognize their goal was not being met and second, the industry in America started compensating for what they could not produce domestically. This eventually led to a huge drop in price that I still remember. When I was 16, I filled up my Ford Bronco II with 86 cents a gallon. I drove through the dilapidated zones of downtown Houston as I did it. It never occurred to my teenage mind that it was connected. All during these low prices, in the 1990’s, we had a series of problems spanning the entire Clinton administration with Iraq. People may not remember now, but Iraq constantly defied UN sanctions, violated military agreements with the Allies (including Saudi Arabia) and it was a rare month when we didn’t bomb them in some shape or form. When Bush took office, Iraq was not seen as an irritant, it was seen as an obstacle. In a very real sense the argument went something like this: Whom do you want to buy your oil from? Alaska or Saddam? The Oil for Food Program was a mess before it was discovered to be a fraud and the Artic Wildlife Refuge near the North Slope looked like a good alternative. The House approved the bill but a partisan vote in the Senate killed it, as they had one more Democrat than they needed. AWR was dead. Are we surprised to find ourselves in Iraq three years later? The difference had to be made up somewhere. In the end, the politicians decided that thousands of dead Americans (and hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis) was better than thousands of dead Caribou. And who is to blame? Big Oil?
And after the dead and the propaganda and the funerals and the protests and all the bullshit – scandal after scandal, approval ratings and elections. What happened? The price went up… enormously …and people got pissed. Why were people upset in 2008 when we were paying close to five bucks a gallon? Were they angry with the inept politicians who put us here, or the dead soldiers who tried to help lower the cost of production? No, they were angry with the oil companies for, in Nancy Pelosi’s famous McCarthyite lecture to the CEO of Exxon-Mobil, “record profits.” How dare you make money, the politicians said while pointing fingers, how dare you employ a record number of people getting a product to market that the masses demand? Does anyone remember this time? The finger pointing and the name-calling and the screaming “ENRON! ENRON!” because instead of thirty bucks a tank they were paying forty-five? I sold my Dodge Durango SUV. I loved it but I sold it. I bought a Civic, which I still drive…ten years later. I could never afford to replace my car in my career in the oil patch. And it looks like I never will.
What did the energy industry do after this? Did they name call and say ‘aw shucks’ and shrink back into their holes as if they were tobacco? Did they watch Syriana on the weekends and feel sorry for themselves? No. They went to work to create a viable alternative to shipping oil in from overseas: increasing the domestic production of energy. Instead of buying your 8% from the Saudis…how about you buy it from Pennsylvania? Oklahoma? Texas? And a second boom began. There were amazing developments – Shale Oil and the shale revolution. The natural gas boom. The offshore installation craze. And there were disasters. Refineries exploded. Pipelines burst. An enormous offshore rig – which I had been on before – had exploded and sank. Lives were lost. Not as many as in a war, but a life nonetheless. And though saddened, the public was satiated. Why? Because domestic production had increased so much between 2010 and 2014 that it was on trajectory to EXPORT oil in just a couple of decades. Was the energy industry the bad guys for making this happen? For getting us off of imported oil from the Middle East? Don’t people complain about “our friends, the Saudis?” Don’t people want to become less and less involved in geopolitical scruffs in a dangerous area of the world only because they make a natural resource we need? Doesn’t the public say “we have no business being over there… they don’t want us there… we should leave?” Isn’t this a good thing?
I described this to a friend in Newfoundland. You know what she said to me? “Fuck (insert my company name here), Fuck Oil, Fuck You and Fuck Off). As oil paid her boyfriend’s wages and got her through grad school, I was a little amazed. As you can guess, we don’t talk anymore. We don’t talk now that the Saudis have decided their long-term market share is more important than the billions they make off of their decreasing market share. Not only did the Kingdom NOT make money last year…they LOST 100 billion. I find this astounding. Rather than make close to a trillion every year, they would rather lose a hundred billion…because an independent producing America is not in their best interest.
And Canada…that has the most expensive oil in the world to produce because it is heavy…was the first to get hit and the one who suffers the most. Canada can completely replace all oil the Saudis import…at a price. That price is now half and Canada cannot compete. I worked for ten years, my fingers to the bone. I have tendonitis in both my arms. I missed time with my kids, tested the patience of my wife and passed on other offers to do other things in my life. Why? Because I believed in it. Because I was doing something I thought was good not just for me, but for North America. And as it turns out, that’s not the same thing as being good for the Saudis. They don’t care that I’m out of work. They want me to be out of work. And as the oil industry crashes and infrastructure suffers and depression sets in…recession sets in... families full of questions and regrets and foreclosures…who do people blame? Does the public blame the Saudis? Or are they looking at what used to be the giant industry that tried to give them independence and hope they never return? “Fuck oil,” they say as they kick the roustabout or tool pusher, “and fuck you.” Hating the Oil Patch has become as American as Apple Pie…and it’s becoming a real national Canadian sport as well. Municipalities in Quebec have plenty to say about pipelines running through their districts to help alleviate Alberta’s economy. The Mayor of Montreal said it best: “fuck oil… and fuck you.”
I am thoroughly convinced that the working class of America would rise up in a figurative sense, go to the polls and vote for the first candidate who said the following: “If you elect me, I will push a measure through congress that bans Saudi oil from our markets.” That person would win Pennsylvania; win Ohio, and most likely Florida – the only three states that swing. But that’s not going to happen. Not from Hillary Clinton, who took Saudi money for her campaigns and for her husband’s library. Not Trump, who is too much of a businessman to piss off a client. And not Cruz or Rubio, who don’t have the cajones even to challenge Trump. What are we left with, then? Corrupt politicians; corrupt overseas nations…and an industry that by and large…only wanted to give the public what they wanted. Who got fucked here? The consumer? The politicians? No. I got fucked. Not because big oil wanted an extra billion, but because the Saudis wanted an extra trillion. And American politicians are fine with that.
So now I’m at Costco looking at the buck fifty for the hot dog. It’s a huge hot dog, and I’m hungry. I’ve been out of work a day and I’m already thinking cut back. No more movies. No more dinner out. But I’ve saved a buck fifty from getting the smaller chicken breast…so I tell myself. So I pay a loonie and a half and I get my hot dog. It comes with a drink, the lady tells me, and I feel like I got a deal. When’s the last time you got a deal? Who gave it to you? Was it a politician? Or a company?
Originally published 31 March 2016