Saskatchewan and the politics of pink gold: An insider’s account of the potash world – by Will Chabun (Regina Leader Post – June 2, 2014)

An insider’s account of potash world

Within a few days of reporting for work in Saskatchewan’s Industrial Development Office, John Burton heard about this fabulous pink mineral that supposedly was going to make Saskatchewan rich.

That was back in 1951. This shows potash is not something new – and that Burton has been around it, on the policy and political side, on and off, for most of his adult life.

It’s a professional interest that has turned into a book, Potash – An Inside Account of Saskatchewan’s Pink Gold (University of Regina Press). Surprisingly, it is the first book on Saskatchewan and potash, Burton believes.

It’s no academic tome, but a lively little volume with a history of the industry’s development. It’s studded with gossipy anecdotes about how flooding almost wrecked the potash industry (until engineers beat it by freezing the water-bearing rock formation) and how Regina’s Hill family was approached to be part of a consortium to buy the government’s potash corporation in the mid-1980s.

But that’s getting ahead of Burton’s story, which begins with Imperial Oil’s discovery of potash during oil exploration drilling in the Second World War. The left-of-centre Co-operative Commonwealth Federation government elected in 1944 was aware of its economic potential, but lacked the money and technical skill to develop a mine by itself.

So it let private companies, most from the U.S., do this. Production at the first mine, IMC’s facility at Esterhazy, began in 1962. Two years later, the fiercely profree enterprise Liberals took over the government.

That set the stage for construction of almost a dozen potash mines. Demand was growing, but Saskatchewan’s production was rising even faster, setting the stage for the province’s controversial system of production rationing.

Burton, who got his economics degree from the U of S and later studied at the renowned London School of Economics, says this set off more problems, like potash companies complaining their production quotas had been set too low – and, eventually, an anti-trust investigation by the U.S. government.

By that time, the government had changed yet again. Allan Blakeney’s NDP was in charge, seeking more revenue from a potash industry reluctant to give more, or to open its books. Throughout his book – which will have its “launch” at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Room 106.1 of the U of R’s Education Building – Burton discusses how the potash industry (from the NDP’s perspective) was more “difficult to live with” than oil and uranium firms, which had become accustomed to a mix of politics and resources.

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