Oil doldrums beset western Canada

The oil boom here in western Canada hasn't exactly gone bust, but it sure is far from the promising story of just two years ago. As oil and natural gas prices began to tumble in 1980, the heady optimism of the Calgary oil barons about virtually unlimited growth for this part of Canada ebbed - and now pessimism is taking hold.

On the prairies, hundreds of rigs used for drilling oil and natural gas are idle, stark witness to the slump besetting the province.

In downtown Calgary, gaping holes where new high-rise office structures were to stand are dramatic testimony to the situation. So are the empty floors of many recently opened office towers.

And so is the steady drumbeat of pessimistic annual reports for companies such as Dome Petroleum Ltd., Sulpetro, and a host of others, including the federally owned Petro-Canada, whose earnings fell by 36 percent last year and promise to drop even more this year.

The doomsayers go further. Sell oil, the stockbrokers among them tell their clients. One commodities newsletter in Toronto expects a 7l percent drop in oil prices by the end of 1983. ''Forget oil,'' growls Albert Friedberg, the newsletter's author. ''Oil will not bounce back.''

That squares with reports prepared for the Alberta provincial government that show a grim picture for Alberta's resources-based economy.

This year bankruptcies are running at a level 50 percent higher than 1982, which was itself a big year for business failures. Store windows in Calgary and Edmonton, the provincial capital, as well as newspaper advertising, tell of liquidation sales and distress.

Unemployment, a mere 4.5 percent at the start of 1982, is now nearly 12 percent. And there is even a slight population outflow from Alberta. This suggests at least a temporary end to the migration flow from eastern Canada which doubled Alberta's population in the past 15 years.

Other signs of recession: Provincial officials have dipped into the $11 billion Heritage Savings Trust Fund, built up in sunnier days from surplus oil revenue. They may have to dip deeper in coming years simply to balance the provincial budget.

But at least the fund exists.

''What would we do without it?'' asks one provincial official.

For that matter, what would Alberta do without oil itself? Many an Albertan has asked that question only to realize that without oil, this province would be in a much worse way.

Agricultural income, based on the vast rolling wheat plains and cattle range land of southern Alberta, is traditionally good, although farming is something of a boom-or-bust industry. Moreover, it cannot be called on to support the vigorous Texas-like life style adopted by Albertans in the last 20 years since oil and natural gas became important.

Oil and natural gas have brought the province prodigious wealth, as well as financial and political clout throughout Canada. Just as traumatic for Albertans as the loss of revenue is the possible loss of some of this power. Premier Peter Lougheed, whose Progressive Conservative Party has 74 of the provincial parliament's 79 seats, has long been at loggerheads with the federal government headed by the Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

The issues center on a dispute over prices for oil and natural gas. In 1980, Mr. Trudeau's Liberal government in its National Energy Program (NEP) set the price at 75 percent of the world level. That so angered Albertans that Mr. Lougheed cut Albertan production by 11.5 percent. This in turned forced the federal government to shell out huge subsidies to users of higher-priced, imported crude in eastern Canada.

Besides being an attack on the NEP, the Lougheed move was a major volley on the part of the province at Mr. Trudeau's efforts to strengthen federal powers by redrafting the federal constitution.

Now, with the slump in oil and natural gas prices, the two antagonists are talking of compromise. Mr. Trudeau has even praised Alberta and neighboring Saskatchewan for having subsidized Canada's energy consumption. The prime minister, faced with a whopping federal budget deficit of more than $30 billion, is eager to stop any further revenue loss stemming from the NEP - and appears to be allowing some aspects of the NEP to wither on the vine.

One result of this new attitude is expected to be a drop of 50 cents on the export price of high-priced Canadian natural gas, now $4.94 per million cubic feet. That would make Canadian gas more competitive on the neighboring United States market. There is also talk of a further price slash that could drop it to

But essentially what Alberta needs is increased world use of its energy. Drilling incentives, to encourage the search for new oil, are also needed. Last year, the Alberta government provided $200 million in cash grants and other drilling incentives, but that money is used up.

''A new windfall of this sort would help,'' concludes one Calgary oil man.

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