Don’t blame the NHL lockout for Canada’s woes. Blame oil.

December 3, 2012

Bad news for our neighbors up north. The Canadian economy grew at a paltry 0.6 percent annualized rate between July and September of 2012. And some news outlets are pointing to a surprising culprit: The cancellation of NHL hockey, thanks to an ongoing labor dispute.


Vitally important to Canada.

That's not such a crazy notion. Canada has seven NHL franchises. Together they employ thousands of people and bring in revenue for local businesses. BMO economist Doug Porter has estimated that the 2004-05 NHL lockout, which saw the entire season canceled, shaved about 0.1 percent off Canada's GDP. And, true, Canadian "arts and entertainment" spending did fall by a whopping 2.8 percent in the third quarter of this year.

That said, a closer look at the data from Statistics Canada suggests that canceled NHL preseason games aren't the main culprit. Canada's exports fell a staggering 2 percent, and the economy took a big hit because oil and gas production is down significantly. For that, the United States could be to blame:

Canada is a major oil and gas producer. Its biggest market is the United States — Americans buy about three-quarters of the country's oil. While that's been a huge economic boon to Canada in recent years, things may be starting to change.

Americans have been steadily cutting back on their oil consumption, particularly by buying more fuel-efficient cars. What's more, the United States has been rapidly boosting its own domestic supply of oil and natural gas by drilling in shale deposits like the Eagle Ford in Texas and the Bakken in North Dakota. (The glut of North Dakota oil has also been clogging the pipelines leading down into the United States, which is hindering Canada's ability to export its crude.)

Add it all up, and this is starting to bite into the Canadian economy. While Canada's crude-oil exports to the U.S. held steady for most of this year, they dipped in September, and natural gas exports have dropped 8 percent in the first eight months of 2012. 

This vulnerability isn't lost on Canada. The recent furor in the United States over the delayed Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring oil from the tar sands of Alberta down to the Gulf of Mexico, has convinced the Canadian government that it needs to become less dependent on U.S. imports. But as Ed Crooks has reported for the Financial Times, that's not so easy to do. For instance, Canada's plans to build export terminals to ship liquefied natural gas to Asia have encountered plenty of domestic protests.

Which means that, for the time being, America's waning appetite for foreign fossil fuels could pose a bigger problem for Canada than the lack of hockey.

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Neil Irwin | December 3, 2012