“Nothing Venture” 7

When I began to think about our contact with a second independent (that is, one unconnected with BIG Oil) oil company to facilitate buying the Calgary Refinery I couldn’t recall whether Turbo Resources contacted us or the other way around. It seems to me I received the first phone call from them, but whether we’d announced we had abandoned the joint venture with Mohawk or they’d heard on the grapevine, I’m not sure.

We three ‘musketeers’, Bill, Jack, and myself – the officers of our worker owned company – met with a vice president and a senior engineer at their downtown offices. I hate name dropping, especially if the ‘name’ hasn’t been asked to participate, so I won’t identify the Turbo people, except to say the vp became very well known later in Calgary in another endeavour.

They were completely up front. “We don’t have a good relationship with Imperial,” we were told. “We will go first to Toronto to speak with them before making any further arrangements for a joint venture.” I later became aware that the then president of Turbo ( who I’ll call BB) was very active in the Canadian oilpatch – particularly in the direction of breaking in on the majors’ stranglehold on refinery and supply.

About a week later we received a call to come and see them after they returned. Again, they were very up front. “Imperial’s people told us that Turbo Resources is the very last company in the world that Imperial will sell the Calgary Refinery to. We’d still like to have it, but the situation is – you people will have to do all the political pressuring and financial dealing, and we’ll be behind you with the money.” We agreed to that. Of course, Imperial wouldn’t be fooled.

Time was now quite short, just months to the announced shut down date. There was a Provincial election coming up, and I think a municipal one as well. We plunged into the political scene and worked on all the local media to try to drum up support from the general public. If you know anything about Calgary you’ll probably know how it went. Nothing interests Calgarians unless it’s on skates or horses, and you can drink beer while watching it.

I think I got the most positive response politically, but not in the direction I was looking for. I stuck my nose into the NDP campaign and was asked to be a candidate in a constituency where they didn’t have one. Even today I’m not sure if I was the first sucker to come along or whether they wanted to learn how serious I was. I was serious about the refinery, but told them I didn’t have enough hours in the day to take on anything else as well. We did have a young fellow in the refinery who decided to run as an independent, but he was not only independent of political parties but of us as well. He naturally turned out to be independent of the voters, too, when election day came around.

To cut a long, sad story short, our attempts to carry the purchase of the refinery on our own shoulders was a dud. We did discuss a last ditch plan to refuse to shut the units down and keep it running – besieged in the refinery by Calgary’s finest and all the quislings Imperial could recruit from the taverns.

When the day arrived our resolve didn’t. We shut it down as ordered and after my shift that day I went to the Alberta Federation of Labour conference being held downtown and earned a welcome ovation for my little presentation on the demise of the refinery and a bitter denunciation of all the help we received from city, provincial government, and industry to gain these lost opportunities. It took me a couple of years or so before I felt cool enough to think of writing about it.

I’ll start on the lessons and the novel writing next time, but I want to add a short postscript to the Turbo saga. After failing to get control of the Calgary refinery they went ahead to build a brand new refinery of their own a few miles north of the city. As the refinery neared completion and during the time thereafter, the whole of southern Alberta became the scene of a bitter price war. All the major oil companies participated, not just Imperial. Gas was cheaper in Calgary and area than anywhere else in the country. Turbo, with a brand new facility to troubleshoot and pay for was the hardest hit by the cutthroat competition. The price war lasted until the president of Turbo, who I named as BB, stepped down from the board and resigned. The very next day the gas prices went back up and the war was over.

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