The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Alberta’s Alienation from Canada

So, for those of you who don’t know, Alberta is sort of Canada’s Texas: It has a lot of oil and a lot of farms.

Alberta is also the heart of the Canada’s Conservative Party. Virtually all of their seats go to the Conservatives every federal election.

Many Albertans feel isolated and disrespected by Ottawa (our capital) and the East. Back in the 70s, Pierre Trudeau (our current Prime Minister’s father) made them sell oil to Canadians for less than market price and even nationalized a little bit of the market.

Since they also have a lot of money, they make what are called “transfer payments” to the other provinces.

So, they feel like they put in more than they get back.

There’s a lot of truth to this, of course. This isn’t the same “Red State” BS like in the US, where they get more from the Feds than they put in and whine about it.

That said, Alberta has been sitting on black gold and fucked it up.

Fucked it up.

They decided that low taxes were more important than investment. They hardly taxed the oil companies pumping the oil, even the foreign ones, and even during boom times when there was no question those companies would pay.

So, they didn’t get as much money as they should.

They also misspent what money they had, and didn’t think about creating a post-oil future economy.

In Canada, we do have poor provinces. The poorest are the Maritime provinces–the ones up against the Atlantic.

Here’s a funny story: Those provinces used to be rich, a long time ago.

See, England needed lots of masts. You need good trees for masts, and the English cut down all their own, and other Europeans had either done the same or wouldn’t chop down enough of them.

Good masts were incredibly valuable. In addition, the Maritimes had the richest fisheries in the world. There are eyewitness accounts from the early days that you could literally dip a bucket into the Ocean and come up with fish.

So the Maritimes were prosperous.

Then the world moved to Steam engines.

Then the Maritimes, quite deliberately and before the advent of climate change, fished the Grand Banks cods to collapse.

Now, they are poor as hell, and always getting those transfer payments.

So, this is Alberta’s future.

The funny thing is that Alberta is also a big agricultural province, but, of course, since oil makes more money, they’ve gone ahead and polluted like hell, destroying vast swathes of land.

To summarize: Alberta did not invest enough in industries to take over when oil (a non-renewable resource) became less valuable. They did do what they could to fuck up their sustainable resource industry: farming.

Most of this is not the rest of Canada’s fault. Yeah, they would have had more money if Ottawa had given them a complete free hand, but they had plenty of money and wasted it on low taxes and tax cuts and didn’t bother to be good environmental stewards.

These decisions were made in Alberta, by Albertans, not in Ottawa.

Resource economies are always, at best, cyclical. They are always in danger of being destroyed by substitution (as is happening with hydrocarbons). A smart jurisdiction uses their resource-based wealth to buy a future not reliant on those resources.

There are lessons here for a lot of countries and regions. Canada as a whole has fucked up its economic balance over the last 20 years (a different article). Russia is way too reliant on resources. Various US states are going to take it on the chin when hydrocarbon prices collapse, and they too have been short-sighted, greedy, and stupid: They’ve been doing things like polluting their groundwater with fracking.

In the future, water is going to be far more valuable than oil. So is good agricultural land.

These places have gone out of their way to destroy both.

The problem with Ottawa isn’t so much that they interfered in Alberta, but that they interfered in Alberta in the wrong ways.

As for Albertan voters who always vote Conservative: You’re fools. Because they know you will always vote for them, they do nothing for you. When the Conservatives were in power for almost a decade, they sucked up to Ontario and Quebec, because they knew they needed their votes.

You? You got nothing, exactly because they know they don’t need to give you anything.

There are those in the US who might think on this lesson as well.

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Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – November 3, 2019


There Are No Good Billionaires (Bill Gates Edition)


  1. Stirling S Newberry

    All true reactionaries parties are run by the rich for the rich, the question is where do they find the voter who will support having low taxes? Down USway it is with religion and making agriculture a form of gambling.

  2. I don’t like giving my email either

    I’m sorry but this construct is just not reality. I come from a long line of western farmers and cattlemen. We’ve had (and likely will have again) rigs and pipelines (gas and oil) on our land and the long term impact has been pretty negligible – not dramatically different than the transmission lines, cell towers, and other modern infrastructure scattered hither and yon. I will admit that we haven’t had ultra-heavy oil mining on our land, but given that that oil is under boreal forest and not agricultural land it hasn’t really come up.

  3. Eric Anderson

    I’ve called it North Texas for years. The general consensus in the border towns to the south of Alberta consider them beyond rude. And the money? Yup. Escalades seem the default mode of transportation. And the forests? Rape and pillage just like tar sand oil. Can’t cut them down fast enough and use shitty practices in doing so. Get on a mountain and look across the border and the difference is stark. Clearcuts the size of small Eastern states. And the mining practices are no better. The bordering U.S. states are currently in a battle to force Alberta to abide the Columbia River Treaty’s cross border pollution provisions as levels of heavy metals regularly exceed thresholds in rivers flowing South across the border.

    So yes, Email, in general he’s correct. Alberta is following the rape and pillage model to a T. Such a contrarian.

  4. Mallam

    Good summary, especially on the resource curse aspect of all this. The only country that does what it needs to do with its oil money is Norway (maybe Scotland if they had more control, their politics seem good while England is a cesspool). Everyone else is busy pissing it away while the world burns.

    You’re wrong that they don’t get anything though. They get to hate brown people and have their racist views validated.

  5. John

    Feudal lords (oligarchs), peasants, ignorance..a winning combo for at least the last 5000 years.

  6. Ian Welsh

    Well, let’s see:

    A group with the support of thousands of farmers will appear before the Supreme Court of Canada to oppose a legal ruling that allows energy companies to walk away from unprofitable wells on agricultural land.

    The court announced Thursday that it will hear from the Action Surface Rights Association in an appeal of the so-called Redwater decision. It allows bankrupt energy companies to abandon wells during bankruptcy proceedings without having to clean up the sites.

    Such a small problem it was worth going to the Supremes for.

    Or, of course, this report, which fills one with confidence.

    A more general view:

    The problem will prove larger than the government admits, quite a bit larger. This is as obvious as sunrise and sunset.

  7. Peter

    Alberta is a beautiful place and I wish I could visit again.
    If we weren’t such a benign superpower we could have taken Alberta and BC to help extract and reclaim these huge oil resources.

  8. Peter

    Alberta is more like NM than TX with everything bigger and bolder.We also are sharing in the oil boom from fracking the Permian here and have surpassed Alaska and are approaching Alberta’s production.
    There is no reliable affordable replacement for oil and gas now or in the foreseeable future so we are fortunate to have between 300 and 1000 years supply of these vital resources,

  9. So here’s the thing. Yes there is racism in Alberta, as Mallam says, and a kind of hypocritical anti-immigrant streak which is particularly galling coming from fourth-generation proud Ukrainian-Canadians who are a big part of the population. However, the bad attitudes on oil and economic matters reach down even into more recent and less popular immigrant groups (brown people and/or people-coded-Muslim) who increasingly vote for Alberta Conservatives.

    The issue is that a younger working class man in Alberta, white or not, can make a huge amount of money working for a few months in the oil patch. Oh, a pittance compared to the executives and investors. But a huge amount for them. Which they proceed to blow either on the outward trappings of middle class life or on the status emblems of highly performative masculinity.

    They are highly affected by the cyclical nature of oil, and are angry when the money dries up. However, the working conditions are highly isolating and not conducive to left-wing economic organization and solidarity, and the instinct of such folk (from the rig workers to the engineers) is incredulous wonder that the flow of cash-for-oil is not continuous. Every downswing, they are encouraged to blame everyone but their employers and their Conservative governments for the bust. And they’re easily convinced that anyone who argues that oil is an unstable source of income is merely making excuses for the depradations of environmentalists, leftists, and Easterners conspiring to keep them from being continuously rich.

    Nationalization to them means taking the money flow out of their hands, rather than creating a stable future. Diversification is seen as a plot to give power to the nerds (even the engineers can’t easily move to other careers).

    I have witnessed this trend relatively closely and I don’t believe it will end until the boom part of the cycle finally peters out for good. Then Alberta might, a generation later, become an NDP province.

  10. Peter

    Great idea Mandos saddle Canadian taxpayers with a $300 billion tax increase to cover the investment costs of the tarsands development and all the reclamation costs on top of that. Perhaps you are one of those ‘just take it’ socialists and dismiss these little details.
    With oil prices so low this seems like a plan to turn Alberta and much of Canada into another Venezuelan.

  11. Peter: I’m not quite sure what you’re talking about. Private-sector resource development is almost by definition massively subsidized already.

  12. Pyotr! Or is it Petya?

  13. I don’t like giving my email either

    Absolutely wells need to be decommissioned properly. My point is that you’re rather arbitrarily hanging everything on oil vs. agriculture. That’s simply not accurate – the list of things that urbanites and easterners inflict on farmers and ranchers is long and varied. Oil is simply one that you guys care about today (while also consuming it and resolutely avoiding options that would significantly curtail demand).

    If you want to understand western alienation, a key root cause is that we’re tired of being talked down to by folks who tell us what the problems are from three provinces away.

  14. The problem is that you’re also tired of being talked down to by folks who live in the same province.

  15. Mallam

    No one talks down to and has more disrespect for their own supporters on a personal level than someone like Donald Trump, and they don’t care because he hates the people they hate. Don’t give me this “they look down on us!” bullshit.

    The entirety of this scam is that is an almost exclusively Elite Driven phenomenon and many have chosen to submit to it or allow it to explain what’s happening because of their own resentments. Look at the NYT deep dive from a few days ago about farming subsidies and how they intersect with corruption, particularly their focus in Hungary (but not limited), and Orban railing about the EU, but using old farming formulas to direct EU subsidies and sell off land to his allies and amass political power. What you really want is “Keep the money coming, let us have our resentments, and don’t make me feel bad about it or I’ll double down.”

  16. Alberta1

    Dear Mandos

    You should really spend some time out of the city. See in Alberta the immigrants we get really like it hear because they get good jobs. Just go to a jobsite, any jobsite, and you will see the third world making lots more money than they would be in Ontario or BC. You have one lens and that is racism so please take it and shove it. You contribute nothing to any conversation, pathetically lurking on these types of boards because you can\’t cope.

    Not a bad post Ian, but also not a good one. There used to be a type of economics called resource economics. Suggest you read up on it. The notion that resources make you poorer is just stupidity. Suggest you look at \”magic dirt theory.\” It will help you focus and answer your questions.

    Alberta\’s resource industry is excellent, mainly because the resource is difficult, and Alberta is filled with Albertans. For the first point look at a place like Kuwait – how hard do they have to work to develop their oil? Not hard. Is it any wonder that Kuwait does not lead in any technical applications of oil and gas production? Is it any wonder they do not have a service industry capable of shale production? For the second one Alberta tends to get immigrants, both Canadian and foreign, who are here for the work. Kind of like Houston.

    It used to be the kitchen staff downtown was all Quebecers. Now they are all Asian as the Quebecers have figured out they can make more money in construction or oil and gas service.

    By the way Eric Anderson the Columbia is across the great divide and the issue with the river is the Province of British Columbia. Try looking at a map sometime. And yes I have spent plenty of time in Montana and Idaho and there is absolutely no problems. If anything places like Great Falls and CDA want more Canadians and Canadian investment. And really you don\’t see many Canadians in the border as there are not that many of us and it is hard to get to. Go to Penticton and CDA and look for Alberta Plates on the boats. Why go to Glacier US when Banff is closer?

  17. anon y'mouse

    it doesn’t matter who is saddled with it because the same people will pay it either way–the users. investments are only made if they can pay off. users pay for everything.

    the only argument you need would be whether public management would result in cheaper prices, better service, or a better regulated process less likely of producing negative externalities. if it is privately owned, you are going to pay extra for the profit the company requires to continue doing what it does, and will likely pay as a taxpayer for the cleanup anyway, since the business usually leaves you holding the bag. and you are going to have to pay for the regulation either way.

    as a public entity, you may have to pay more but might get better with regard to maintenance and environmental issues—meaning you are paying for them as you go along rather than stuck cleaning up afterward later, but then what you end up with depends highly upon how things are managed unless the plan is to rocket off to mars before the environmental bill comes due.

    isn’t this just the PGE problem combined with the Post Office problem, in a nutshell?

  18. Peter

    Anon, you are wrong on two points and and are proposing they pay twice for these development costs. First, much if not most of this dilbit is being exported so other countries are paying for these costs. Second, the oil companies pay royalties on this dilbit which indirectly offsets the costs to consumers. There is also the fact that this development has helped lower oil priced which directly benefits Canadian consumers
    The Canadian government already regulates this industry and require reclamation bonds and you must be joking if you believe politicians and bureaucrats can run an oil industry operation efficiently.

  19. Hugh

    In the US, oil companies can often pick up oil leases for a song. They receive subsidies and tax breaks. Any royalties they pay are far below the externalities of the environmental damage to the land and water, any clean up, and of course global warming.

    The vast majority of oil in the world is controlled by national oil companies.

    If you look at oil producing countries throughout the world, they are rampant kleptocracies. This is because you have large cash flows not originating in the country coming into the government and it is relatively easy to redirect this exogenous money away from public investments and into private pockets.

    So yes, you can talk about royalties and clean up bonds and such, but do the royalties reflect the value of the product and its costs? Similarly, re the clean up bonds, do these cover the costs of a real clean up? The answer to both questions is pretty obviously no.

  20. Sid Finster

    You’d be amazed how many Americans think that red states are by and large net federal budget contributors and that coastal states are net federal budget recipients. Suffice it to say that the evidence does not bear this out.

    Now, we can argue later about how, for instance, a grossly overpriced F-35 based in Maine ought to be allocated – should the acquisition cost be allocated to Maine, or just the cost of operating and maintaining the thing? If some of the cost should be allocated among the other 49 states, since it does protect Muh Freedumb for everyone, on what basis should that cost be allocated? Tax revenues, population, or something else? We can also play these games with other costs, such as debt service or bailing out a bank.

    Regardless, no matter how you slice it, take away the federal government and a lot of fire engine red states like North Dakota would turn into wastelands, tout suite.

  21. bruce wilder

    I just remember Leonardo DiCaprio in the oil company helicopter flying over the tar sands and remarking, “It kind of looks like Mordor.”

  22. anon y'mouse

    Peter–what you have said is basically that they bribe the Canadians to endure such environmental wastage because they personally are not being hit in the wallet immediately, but are being subsidized by the export of the commodity around the world.

    but they will pay eventually, in cleanup. and then eventually they will not have the resource, either. which is, i believe, direct to Ian’s point: what is being done with this flow of money, and what is going to be left behind?

    as with other industries of extraction, even agriculture: you are sending your vital resources (with agriculture, mainly water while aquifers run dry and topsoil is eroded) outside for monetary inflows and expecting the people who live there to eat all of the externalities (mostly by being unaware of them) while a private company reaps the bulk of the money.

    are the royalties a fair recompense for what will be left behind? the people in that province are saying it is. Ian, and those with other priorities, might think otherwise.

  23. Peter

    Hugh, you obviously know little about the oil/gas industry or the state and fed share of lease and severance tax revenues. NM received over $800 million from leases and the feds got about $350 million in 2017. and NM has had over a $billion budget surplus the last two years from oil/gas severance taxes. One oil lease in Texas cost the oil company $1 billion.
    The oil industry is heavily regulated which cost them about $450 billion a year with over $100 billion of that from paperwork costs.alone.
    You are correct about state owned oil companies such as Russia feeding kleptocracy, fortunately we have avoided that fate, so long as we keep the Squad led socialists out of office.

  24. Peter

    Anon it’s a bit warped to view sharing the monetary benefits of energy development as bribery.
    All of industrial civilization’s developments have costs and benefits environmental and monetary. We have become much more adept at mitigating and remediation of the enviro effects while enhancing the monetary returns. This is why there are now fish in our rivers that used to catch on fire and burn for days.
    The reclamation of the tar sands mined areas has already begun and looks good. One Albertan joked that they are cleaning up the largest oil spill in the world. Most of the new development there is in-situ which disturbs much less land.
    If you are interested in what Big Ag is doing to preserve and improve the land they depend on and is helping to feed the world you should visit the fifth generation farmer’s site MNMillennialFarmer on youtube.

  25. Hugh

    I am reminded of Timothy Geithner bragging about all the money, in the billions, the Fed made off its dollar swaps programs after the 2008 financial meltdown. What Geithner didn’t say was that the way he went about it fundamentally violated Bagehot’s Law, that money should be made available to cash-strapped but credit-worthy bad actors after a downturn, but at punitive rates. So he made billions but could have and should have made billions more by increasing the costs on bad actors and thereby curbing future bad behavior.

    So the oil industry pays money to government but not anything remotely close to what government should require or to cover the true costs of fossil fuel use and extraction on land, water, environment, and climate.

  26. I don’t like given my email either

    It’s funny that you speak of elite driven phenomena, Mallam. I find this whole discussion to be a form of it – a bunch of folks using their vision of western Canadian political economy to further their pet hobby horses.

    Our reality does not conform to everyone here’s picture of it. I walk around my small hometown in the summer and, contrary to the vision advanced, I see abundant evidence of investment in post-oil economy. I can think of half a dozen new big businesses that were ultimately funded for startup off the economic bump from oil and gas – and that don’t rely on it for sustainment and growth. Instead of 20% of storefronts being empty, they’re all full – and that’s with oil in the toilet. There’s a brand new hospital and a new recreation facility.

    The key here is that our economic investments are in unsexy things that don’t conform to the preconceptions of easterners and urbanites – lentil processing and canola crushing don’t spring to top of mind, but they’re realities in our world, which depends on a lot of modest sized businesses. In the same way, many of our views on exposure to global markets don’t conform to distant preconception. Our direct experience says we can compete successfully with just about anybody and those unsexy investments are producing more value add all the time, but everyone else tells us not to believe our lying eyes. Given that the some of the biggest drags in the past year on our ability to do this stem from bad decisions in Ottawa, that rings pretty hollow.

  27. Fish in the rivers – you mean like the salmon? Whose west coast runs have completely collapsed over the past ten years? You know, salmon – big pink fish, fights its way upstream to fuck?

    Like the bee, when the salmon are gone so will we.

    Oh, right – that’s BC, no worries.

    [I’ve stayed out of this conversation because though for many years a Montanan of Manitoban ancestry who’d back in the day taken the kids to the Stampede more than a handful of times and indeed was always impressed by the sheer diversity of the place … I’m not there, and defer the conversation to those who are. The adult thing to do. Be unseen and unheard]

  28. DMC

    It seems that we’ve come up on the Heartland Institute’s radar, hence our very own petro-troll.

  29. Eric Anderson

    “By the way Eric Anderson the Columbia is across the great divide and the issue with the river is the Province of British Columbia. Try looking at a map sometime”

    1) Look at the Kootenai River on a map smart guy. It’s covered under the Columbia River Treaty b/c it flows directly into the Columbia.

    2) You’re speaking to an attorney with certificates in environmental, natural resource and water law who is involved in the process.

    3) Open mouth.

    4) Insert foot.

    5) See my comment about rude Albertans … above.

  30. Eric Anderson


    Then, go find the Elk River. Then, notice that it flows into the Kootenai. Then, look for the massive Tekk coal mine directly adjacent to the Elk River.

    Pretty sure an apology is forthcoming. It’s what an honorable and decent human being would do.

  31. Eric Anderson

    Native of “Tropical Montana” here.
    For those wondering what that means (you should ten bears) it’s an inside Montanan joke about a certain city therein.

  32. Peter

    TB, I fished for sockeye with the Indians on the upper Fraser back in ’72, caught one in the nets that must have weighed 30 to 40 pounds. I recall that adventure every time I read about the problems of the salmon fisheries in the NW.I don’t know the cause of the collapse but there seems to be many. We’ve done a lot of damage but a lot of talented people are working on solutions.
    I was a beekeeper but had to quit when the killer bees took over my last hive and almost killed my good neighbor.The bee problem in the SW is too many bees, killer bees, a million wild hives in AZ alone.

  33. Willy

    It’s doubtful that any discussion here would lead to shutting down Albertan boreal oil operations (though for some reason its supporters seem quite alarmed, especially when they live nowhere near there). The companies at McMurray are notorious for underreporting things like atmospheric pollution release, and that entire industry well-known for propagandizing things like ‘investments in carbon capture’ knowing full they’d only implement such after being forced to by local governments.

    That said, I think we all know that “socialism” is a very bad word, far worse than “motherfucker”. If anybody dares questioning the heroic integrity of the kindly oil sands folks working on behalf of mankind, who’ll go away as soon as the sands have run out anyways, then we must break out the dirty words.

  34. Eric Anderson

    The general consensus is a combination of 1) dams — Salmon fry don’t “swim” downstream. They are carried by the high spring flood currents allowing them to expend little energy which they need to forage on the downstream trip. Thus the fact they are now loading them onto barges and shipping them down the Columbia 2) higher temps due to urbanization & deforestation, and 3) by-catch from pelagic trawlers.

  35. Ten Bears

    Go Griz 🐻

  36. different clue

    I used to watch CBC news decades ago when our Cable TV offered it as part of the basic package. So I learned what little bit about contemporary Canada which an over-the-border newswatcher might learn by watching the TV news.

    So I have a little quibble about ” the Maritimes” fishing the Grand Banks Cod to commercial extinction. My impression at-the-time from watching the news was that the Ottawa Government fishery authorities were inviting all the Strip Mining Fleets of the Whole World to come to the Grand Banks and strip mine all the cod out of the sea. I remember the Newfoundland Premier ( Prime Minister?) at the time being publicly bitter about his constant and ineffective efforts to stop the Ottowa Government’s ” Fisheries Czar” from giving away every fish in the sea to NON-Newfoundlanders. I couldn’t remember this Premier’s name so I looked up “all the Premiers” and the face of Clyde Wells looked like the relevant familiar face to me. I remember Wells once complaining about ” Canada dancing around the table with NATO” over the issue of “whose cod? and will there be any left for us?” I seem to remember a ” Mr. Daliwal” as being one of the relevant Fishery Czars from that period, but my memory may be shorting out. Here’s the picture I found which looked familiar to me.

    ( My favorite TV commentator from either country was Rex Murphy. I liked his style. Not salty. Sour and bitter . . . just the way I like it).

  37. different clue

    ( And further down the Clyde Wells entry, I see the youthful face of a youthful John Crosby. My only TV memory of John Crosby was seeing a much older white-haired John Crosby screaming ” I didn’t take all the God Damn fish from the sea!” But I don’t remember the context.

  38. ultra

    Alberta1: “For the second one Alberta tends to get immigrants, both Canadian and foreign, who are here for the work. Kind of like Houston.”

    Houston is a liberal city dominated by Democrats. It even had a lesbian mayor not so very long ago.

    Peter: New Mexico receives almost $3 from the Federal government for every $1 that it sends. It’s one of the welfare states, notwithstanding the oil revenues that you are bragging about. The same thing is true of North Dakota and Louisiana.

  39. ricardo2000

    Albertan’s childish discontent is based on the notion that having had several oil booms in the past they now deserve another one. As this isn’t happening, it must be someone else’s fault: the Gubmint and outside agitators.
    The facts are that Alberta’s Tar Sands projects are worthless.

    The only reason Alberta’s crude crawled off a bottom of $18/barrel was due to Rachel Notley and the NDP party’s application of supply controls. Otherwise the Tar Sands, and all conventional oil assets in Western Canada, would be worth less than nothing.

    The most common complaint is that Alberta supplies the rest of Canada with rich oil profits. The truth is that Canada has subsidized oil and gas industries since 1998. TransMountain pipeline, and the recent Alberta CONservative budget, merely accelerates this losing trend. This study is from the University of Calgary and states that oil & gas industry subsidies cost Canada over $20 billion a year amounting to over 2% of GDP.

    The world is already over-supplied with crude. For example, Texas fracked shale oil producers can’t make a profit in the unregulated home of the oil and gas industry.

    The top report listed below is from the world’s largest banks, including the BIS (Bank for International Settlements) and states that the oil and gas industry can’t pay back its debts.

    Any sober consideration of the energy market reveals that Alberta’s crude has the worst economics in the world, the highest cost in terms of energy required to produce it, and the highest fraction of sulphur to remove.

    Renewables have crushed coal, are coming for natural gas, and crappy crude is next. There is nothing that the whiners in Alberta can do about it: the energy market is going to crush Alberta crude, however many times they chant ‘Alberta Strong’.

    So in what business fantasy world does increasing the supply of despised, poor-quality crude lead to increased demand and a higher price?

    The marketing plan for TransMountain has Scheer and Kenney pushing a battered shopping cart to the end of the pier and standing there, dirty and desperate, with a large cardboard sign reading:

    Will ship subsidized crappy crude anywhere for bugger all.

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