NEW YORK — Ralph Klein — a rambunctious Canadian politician who helped bring the 1988 Winter Olympics to Calgary as the city’s mayor and then, as premier of petroleum-drenched Alberta for 14 years, spurred development of the province’s massive oil sands deposits — died March 29 in Calgary. He was 70.
His family announced the death. He had dementia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Canadian newspapers said.
Mr. Klein followed an unusual route to become one of his nation’s most influential politicians. The son of a professional wrestler known as Killer Klein, who had abandoned him, Mr. Klein dropped out of high school, became a television weatherman, and, as something of a lark, ran for mayor in 1980. With a rumpled, folksy manner, he held court for years in the smoke-filled beer hall of the King Louis Hotel in Calgary. He was called King Ralph and liked it.
As a politician, Mr. Klein rode the rising and falling tides of the oil market in a province that trails only Saudi Arabia and Venezuela in proven crude oil reserves. In boom times, petrodollars fueled the local economy and helped him expand the light-rail transit system, as well as attract and produce the Olympics.
But after being elected premier in 1992 following a collapse in oil prices, he confronted a towering deficit and the largest per-capita debt of any province. He proceeded to erase the debt with the help of a subsequent rise in oil prices and by drastically cutting services, laying off thousands of employees, and privatizing government services, like the provincial telephone company.
Mr. Klein was instrumental in pushing the industry to begin recovering the heavy, gunky crude from oil sands in Alberta’s north. Oil executives had considered the effort such a gamble that they had almost ceased to invest in it by 1995, so Mr. Klein’s government came up with a plan to kick-start development: It charged companies only 1 percent on their revenue until all construction costs were paid. Royalties eventually rose to 25 percent of revenue.
Mr. Klein’s original goal was for tripled production over 25 years. But the projects exceeded that goal in less than a quarter of that time, at a cost to the oil companies of $21 billion to $30 billion. ‘‘The reality is that we got there in eight years,’’ Eric Newell, former president of Syncrude Canada, the biggest oil sands producer, told a Canadian newspaper, The National Post, in 2006. ‘‘And the really good news is when we got there we had another $30 billion in projects on the table ready to go.’’
The success of the oil sands development has spurred the proposal for the Keystone XL pipeline to take the crude from Canada to refineries in Texas, a plan the Obama administration is evaluating in the face of competing pressures from the oil industry and environmentalists and their political allies.
Ralph Phillip Klein was born in Calgary in 1942. After his parents divorced when he was 6, he was raised by his maternal grandparents. He dropped out of school after the 10th grade and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. Once in the service, however, he became depressed and was granted a medical discharge. He then resumed his education at Calgary Business College, a vocational school, where he studied accounting and commercial law.
After graduating, he taught at the college and became its principal, but later quit to take a higher-paying job in public relations with the Canadian Red Cross. From there he moved on to the United Way. He next became an announcer on a Calgary radio station. He advanced to television, first as a weatherman, then as the station’s city hall reporter. He spent much of his time roaming the city to cover biker gangs, prostitutes, and the homeless.
In 1980, with no political experience, he decided to run for mayor and won. Early on, Mr. Klein gained national attention for blaming ‘‘bums and creeps’’ from eastern Canada for straining the city’s social services and the police. He was reelected twice.
In 1989, Mr. Klein ran for the provincial Legislature. After his victory, he was named environment minister. In 1992, he was elected leader of the Progressive Conservative Party and became premier later that year when the conservatives won an election. After winning his third election, he proclaimed in 2001, ‘‘Welcome to Ralph’s world.’’
Later that year, he burst into a homeless shelter, yelling that the residents should get jobs, threw money on the floor, and left. ‘‘I drink too much from time to time,’’ he said. ‘‘But I wasn’t drunk. I was in good spirits.’’
He was elected for the fourth time in 2004.
His irreverence about Edmonton, the province’s capital city, never abated. He called it a fine place with too many socialists and mosquitoes. ‘‘At least you can spray the mosquitoes,’’ he said.
His penchant for colorful comments won him friends, enemies, and considerable attention. In 2003, after the United States banned Canadian beef imports because of a case of mad cow disease, Mr. Klein seemed to endorse a coverup to protect the $5.1 billion industry. ‘‘I guess any self-respecting rancher would have shot, shoveled, and shut up,’’ he said.
At the Olympics, Mr. Klein mistook the King of Norway for his driver and asked him to fetch the car. The startled king explained who he was as he pulled out his silver cigarette case. Mr. Klein apologized and bummed a cigarette.