Business·The COVID Economy

Oilpatch on 'pins and needles' waiting for aid, while Calgary Stampede uncertain

Whether it is tourism, retail or other industries, Alberta's economy is stalled as non-essential businesses and services are shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19. But the province is facing another financial blow because of the oil price crash.

Alberta was already shedding jobs before it was hit with a 'double-whammy' of COVID-19 and an oil price crash

The Calgary Stampede regularly draws crowds of more than one million people during the July rodeo and festival, but this year's event is still up in the air amid the pandemic. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

This story is part of The COVID Economy, a CBC News series looking at how the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic is affecting jobs, manufacturing and business in regions across Canada.


This is usually the busiest time of the year inside the factory at Smithbilt Hats as the weather begins to change and people begin to get a bit of spring fever anticipating outdoor concerts, festivals and, of course, the Calgary Stampede.

Instead, the factory, nestled in the heart of the city, sits idle as employees remain laid off because of the pandemic.

It's the first time the shop has had to close in its 101-year history, according to vice-president Brian Hanson, aside from a few days during the 2013 flood when nobody could access the building.

"That will hurt the whole city if Stampede cancels. Hopefully, we don't have to do that. That brings a lot of money in for everyone in the city," said Hanson.

At this point, the Calgary Stampede has yet to make a decision about its annual 10-day event in July, as the organization assesses "what may be probable, possible and not possible with respect to all programming."

Whether it is tourism, retail or other industries, the province's economy is stalled as non-essential businesses and services are shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19. But Alberta is facing another financial blow because of the oil price crash.

Talks ongoing

Demand for fuel has plummeted across North America because of the pandemic, while at nearly the same time Russia and Saudi Arabia began ramping up oil production in early March. Oil prices have fallen sharply around the globe, including to record lows in Alberta, where on some days a barrel of oil has sold for nearly 10 per cent of its value in February.

With the majority of oil producers in Western Canada losing money, many companies are struggling to gain financial flexibility as banks tighten up how much they are willing to lend.

Smithbilt Hats has been closed for about a month and all production is halted. (Bill Graveland/The Canadian Press)

That's why the oilpatch is looking to the federal government for some type of aid package to make sure funding is available if needed.

Talks have been ongoing for several weeks, but the federal government has yet to make any proposals, according to industry leaders.

"We're all waiting on pins and needles, waiting to see," Darren Gee, the chief executive of Exploration and Development Corp., said during a recent investor event.

"I've heard lots of ideas that have been batted around. I think the industry is wide open to creative solutions to get through some of this short-term liquidity issue."

Read other stories in the series:

Over the Easter weekend, oil-producing countries around the world solved some of the industry's problem by agreeing to significantly reduce oil output in what some industry veterans are describing as an unprecedented mega-deal.

Still, it's just one step in improving the woes of the oilpatch, because the OPEC production cuts, paired with expected declines and shut-ins in Canada, the United States and some other producing countries, are expected to reduce global oil supply by about 14 million barrels per day in May and June.

By comparison, oil demand has fallen by about 20 million barrels per day amid the pandemic.

"Without this deal, the global industry would have run out of storage for the flood of excess oil in a few weeks, and prices would have crashed, which would have also really hit financial markets," Daniel Yergin, the vice chairman of IHS Markit, said in a statement.

"This restrains the buildup of inventories, which will reduce the pressure on prices when normality returns — whenever that is."

'Think big and bold'

In Alberta, business leaders say it might be time to halt some environmental policies proposed by the federal government that could get in the way of economic recovery, such as the clean fuel standard and methane harmonization, until the oilpatch is on solid footing.

This is also the time for Ottawa to "think big and bold"and position Canada to be competitive globally, according to Adam Legge with the Business Council of Alberta.

WATCH | Adam Legge with some ideas to help Alberta's economic recovery:

The president of the Business Council of Alberta says there needs to be help for people, business and the economy. 2:23

The agriculture sector is a bright spot for the province right now, he said.

"Everyone is trying to figure out where is the end point. The challenge is that nobody really knows how long or far this is going to go, particularly because Alberta is facing the double-whammy of COVID-19 and the oil price collapse," Legge said.

The post-pandemic recovery will also be difficult for Alberta, compared to other parts of Canada, since the province was already struggling with job losses before the spread of COVID-19, shedding about 19,000 jobs in January and another 15,000 in February.

Ben Gerwing, president of the Alberta Boot Company in Calgary, stamps leather for a pair of boots in this photo from 2016. (Sarah Lawrynuik)

About half of the province's economy is based on consumer spending at restaurants, shops and other retailers, according to Legge.

"If we can somehow safely and ethically put more people back on the streets spending money, the sooner and better we can do that, the sooner we can get jobs back again, the economy back going, so we don't kill everything in the process," Legge said.

That's why some businesses in Calgary still hope the Stampede will take place this year, even if it won't attract nearly as many people as last year, when 1.27 million people walked through the gates, the second-best attendance ever recorded.

The Alberta Boot Company, which has closed and temporarily laid off staff, usually records half of its annual sales during a four-week period around Stampede. 

"I'm holding out a little glimmer of hope that we might still see a Stampede, whether it is still the same original date or something later in summer," said president Ben Gerwing.

"If we don't have a Stampede this year, it's going to be a real struggle to make it to next year's Stampede."

He's hopeful government programs and possible business group marketing campaigns to "buy local" will cushion the blow.

"We'll try to take advantage of anything that we can to get sales up and people back in the store when everything is said and done," he said.

About the Author

Kyle Bakx

Reporter

Kyle Bakx is a Calgary-based journalist with CBC's network business unit. He's covered stories across the country and internationally.

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