Seventies Oil Boom

The OPEC Oil Embargo of 1973-74 quadrupled prices for most imported Oil, from $3 to $12 a barrel. The size and viability of North Eastern Alberta’s Oil Sands had been known for more than half a century, but now there was suddenly a potential profit at the end of a long expensive research and development project to get it out of the ground and into a useful form.

Fort McMurray was the biggest beneficiary of Growth, but Edmonton and Calgary were not far behind.

It all came apart in 1982 with a few clues of the Crash to come in 1981. Oil dropped from $40 to $12 a barrel.

Wages Doubled

The year before I graduated from UBC, Computer Science graduates reported averaging $600 a month in wages for their first job. I could not even find a job in Vancouver, starting instead in Yellowknife and moving to Edmonton 8 months later.

In 5 years, from 1977 to 1982, my Wages doubled not once, but more than twice, from $10,000 a year to more than $40,000. Staying there for the next 20 years. Until…

Another Oil Boom took hold by the mid-2000s, with Edmonton housing prices doubling or tripling depending on the type of housing, size and area of the City. Suddenly my Wages took off again, almost doubling again in less than four years before I retired at the beginning of 2007.

3.125

At the beginning of 1982, when it was clear that the Oil Boom was over, the President of the large Edmonton-based Engineering firm where I worked wrote an All Staff memo that sealed his fate: I saw him just a few years later shuffling along a subway corridor in a rumpled suit, then again a short time later trying to promote a deal to some disinterested restaurant guests of his.

He wrote that Engineering would never be the same now that Clients would no longer pay 3.125 times the hourly wage of Consulting Firms’ employees. The President was gone within days of that memo, and head office moved to Calgary where a Vice President took over. I left six months later, ahead of the Layoff that I knew was coming, given how many of those around me had already been let go.

Those Oil Boom days were heady ones. It did not take much Billable Time to make the company a tidy profit on your wages, and you might even see a fair share of that profit returned to you as a bonus.

It wasn’t just the end of the Oil Boom that hit the company hard. By far, its largest Edmonton project was the Convention Centre. Of the $86 million spent on its construction, only $28 million was above ground. Most of the rest was revenue for my employer, who specialized in Geotechnical Engineering, which makes sense given that the Convention Centre was built into the North Saskatchewan River Bank, which was full of abandoned coal mines in that area.