By Tim Kalinowski
Alberta federal Senator Doug Black says while both the oil and gas sectors and agriculture need emergency short-term federal support to weather the current COVID and oil price crises, the Alberta government should be thinking about ways of helping to create a sturdier and more robust provincial economy in the longer term.
And that means creating more access to coastal seaways to export Alberta’s petroleum products, but also thinking about helping to stimulate other sectors of the economy, like agriculture, to take a greater share of the province’s economic load in the future.
“I am hopeful one of the takeaways from this trauma we are going through is we will recognize, while energy will be a significant part of the Alberta economy, it will not be as significant as it was even months ago,” he says. “Therefore, we need to be putting thought, money, intelligence and innovation into agriculture and the agribusiness sector.”
But those are the problems for tomorrow, Black says, and we still have more than enough to deal with the economic woes of today which have been severely aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. And that, he says, is going to require more government dollars be directed toward key sectors.
“The governments in Canada, recognizing this is a tremendous problem, have, on the whole, done what is required,” he says. “We see a fair bit of criticism that each day there seem to be changes to various programs, but I would imply say, look, this is moving so quickly that I respect the government of Alberta and the government of Canada for the work they have done to date. Having said that, in terms of the government of Canada’s responsibility to Alberta, they still have a big job to do, in my view, in terms of supporting liquidity for medium-sized energy companies.
“Because if they don’t, and there is about 20 to 25 of them that fit in the range I am speaking about, which run the very real risk of failing. And that’s lost jobs, lost assets, lost opportunities, lost innovation, etc. And I continue to make this very clear to the government of Canada at every opportunity I have. We appreciate what has been done, but there is still one pillar unattended. And I’m not going to rest until that gets addressed.”
Black acknowledges larger oil and gas companies likely have enough financial capacity to weather their current market crash without government support. He also acknowledges there are lots of smaller oil and gas companies which were failing prior to the market crash, and their fall likely cannot be prevented even with government support. That’s why his focus is on those medium-sized oil companies which continue to be viable, and where a little bit of government support could help get them over the current economic hump.
“I think it is fair to say some of the energy companies which require support that some of them are not going to make it,” he states. “Because if they didn’t have the capacity pre-COVID to run a business that was sustainable, we should not be propping that business up. But there are some businesses that are highly sustainable that just lost their cashflow.”
In terms of agriculture, now is the time to give that sector the federal government’s full attention, says Black.
“I would say to you we are going to have to continue to push that file because in fairness to the government they have been so overwhelmed by the issues they have had to deal with day after day that agriculture, as usually happens, has not gotten the attention it deserves. It is time now for the full focus of the government to fall on what it is we need to do to support the agriculture industry writ large.”
“I can assure you that I, and Senator Scott Tannas from High River, who lives right in High River, are very much cognizant of the fact that agriculture requires support.”
Black recently helped co-write a letter with 10 other senators urging the Trudeau government to put greater focus on the needs of the agriculture and agri-food industry. The letter calls for the the creation of an emergency fund to ensure the industry can continue to provide vital supplies to Canadians during the current pandemic.
“The time to invest in Canada’s agriculture industry is now,” the letter reads in part. “Market stability and producer confidence will enable sound business decisions and investments to continue to be made across the sector. A proactive strategic assistance approach to the industry will help avoid costly payouts from the AgriStability program that is helpful for addressing losses but is more reactive in nature. The health of Canadians is our first priority but without a secure food supply domestically Canadians will feel the brunt if food security is compromised in the coming months.”
The letter notes the agriculture and agri-food sector could be the key industrial catalyst for Canada’s eventual post-COVID economic recovery if these supports are pro-actively put in place by the federal government as soon as possible.
“There’s a lot of talk around energy, which of course is important to Alberta, but it is not the only industry which is important to Alberta,” he says. “My commitment is to continue to ensure agriculture gets the attention that it requires at the federal level. I will continue to do that, and hopefully with some success.”