Tag Archives: natural resources

It’s time to stop thinking magically about the future

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Those of us who are well-established in our irascibility – a function of our sullen conviction that most people are thoroughgoing nincompoops – approach the dawn of a new year experiencing an odd mixture of dread and resignation.

Didn’t we just come off the tail-end of one of the stupidest 12-month periods in recent Canadian history? Why must we do this all over again? Do we really expect to get it right this time when getting it wrong is what we do best?

Of course, part of getting it wrong – maybe the most important part – is making darn sure that otherwise eminently solvable problems become utterly intractable and, so, eternally, nauseatingly durable.

Consider, in this context, shale gas.

There might be 70 trillion cubic feet of the stuff trapped in sedimentary rock beneath the surface of New Brunswick. Presently, a handful of companies pursue exploration leases to determine whether any of the resource is commercially exploitable. If any of it is, then a new industry dedicated to its extraction and export could create hundreds of jobs and replenish provincial government coffers with royalty revenues.

Meanwhile, cognizant of the potential environmental hazards associated with drilling operations, the Government of New Brunswick has released not one, but three sets of guidelines to govern industry practices. Premier David Alward calls these rules “the toughest and most comprehensive in North America.” He’s not wrong.

All things being equal, then, one should expect a broad level of public support for the investigative phase of this resource’s development. After all, no one’s building a strip mine or digging a quarry, many of which exist in New Brunswick, posing far more of an existential threat to potable water and uncontaminated soil than do shale gas wells.

But lest John Q. Public becomes confused, he must always ignore the facts. Now, the only images tight plays of petroleum conjure in the minds of the majority are those of angry, rural locals (and their urban, politically correct confederates) who are convinced that democratically elected governments cannot be trusted to regulate industry responsibly.

Somehow, placards, barricades and protest lines do a far better job than does the law of holding accountable those dirty, rapacious drilling operations.

Equally absurd, and no less irksome, is the notion, gaining widespread currency in the mainstream of the population, that New Brunswick should abandon all efforts to develop any of its natural resources – non-renewable and otherwise.

The argument against harvesting and processing fossil fuels is already familiar and, though not actually practical, not without some merit. But many of those who decry pipelines for Alberta bitumen into Saint John’s refinery also condemn wind turbines, which pollute nothing, contribute no green house gases to global warming, as they add 500 megawatts of electricity to the province’s power grid each year.

With evidence that is almost diaphanous, opponents of “big wind” claim that proximity to the rotating blades produces everything from migraines to vertigo to brain tumors. Besides, they whine, they’re ugly.

Such was the condition of New Brunswick’s polity in the year that was. Such, we may reasonably fear, will be its condition in the year ahead, solely because, in this province, a lack of intellectual firepower is matched only by a catastrophic failure of the collective imagination.

Increasingly, far too many of us cannot conceive of a day when we will witness the economic engines and commercial levers freeze for good. It’s never happened before. We’ve always managed to pull through, demanding and pretty much getting everything we’ve asked our politicians to deliver.

The corollary effect, of course, is that we get politicians who will only pander to our misguided, uninformed expectations.

But the day of reckoning is nearly upon us. A province of 750,000 people, sporting a structural deficit of $500 million on a long-term debt of $11 billion – a province that is shedding people and jobs faster than any other in Canada – cannot afford to engage in magical thinking about its future.

Should this realization eventually dawn on New Brunswick, version 2014, I’ll gladly apologize to all those of my fellow citizens who once apprenticed in this sullen, self-satisfied land as nincompoops.

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Same old, tired chestnuts of office

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Tradition, if not prudence, demands that the premier of New Brunswick addresses the province’s electors at least once a year through the shrewd graces of the local, mainstream media.

So it was last week and this when David Alward presented himself to various editorial boards, his talking points in hand, his brow appropriately furrowed in keeping with the solemnity of the occasion.

New Brunswick, he said in so many words, was on the horns of a dilemma. Or, rather, perhaps it was at a crossroads, a critical juncture, a turning point. In any event, it needed a reality check, an infusion of entrepreneurial vigor, a shot in the arm.

These, naturally, are what one must endure when the sturdier veins of vision become varicose: cliches, all of them empty.

“We are still as focussed as we have ever been in terms of getting back to that fiscal strength where we need to be as a province,” Mr. Alward told the Telegraph-Journal. “We have taken and continue to take the difficult decisions, whether that be from an expenditure perspective – we see for the first time in many, many years a government actually come in under budget – the work on foundational reforms, whether that be on work on pensions or local government.”

It is, of course, authentically absurd to speak of coming in “under budget” in a province that’s running an annual budget deficit of $538 million for the current fiscal year and a long-term debt of $11 billion. Shall we now praise the provincial Tories for managing to keep most of their spending promises while the apparatus of the economy crumbles at their feet?

Yet, Mr. Alward also spoke of cornerstones: “Jobs and the economy continue to be the overriding issue that faces us collectively as a province, but as individuals and families as well. Continuing the work that we have done with the development of natural resources will be a very important part of that.”

Specifically, he said, “We are committed to seeing natural resource development as a key cornerstone. . .Next steps when it comes to shale gas development, next steps on things like the TransCanada pipeline, on a number of mining opportunities in the province, will all be very important.”

Does this seem yawningly familiar? Once upon a time in the Progressive Conservative liturgy, shale gas was but one “opportunity” the province might tap to lift the spirits of its flagging economy. Others included: commercially viable university research and development, health care innovation, software engineering, back office services, and data storage.

Now, the message coming from government circles is all about shale gas all the time, which would be just fine if there were anything new and constructive to contribute to the conversation. There isn’t.

The industry still doesn’t know if or when it will proceed to extract what remains, at best, an estimable asset. A vocal minority of New Brunswickers remain adamantly opposed to shale gas drilling. The rest of the population doesn’t seem to know or care enough about the issue to venture an opinion one way or the other.

And yet, this potential economic player somehow becomes a “cornerstone piece” in the puzzle that is New Brunswick 2014.

So does a pipeline from Alberta’s oil depots into Saint John. Forget the fact that political goodwill, while useful, does not a pipeline build without pubic support and regulatory approval.

These projects are not, in fact, projects until they begin to generate revenue for their commercial masters.

How, then, can government seriously view them as pillars of the provincial economy? A priori reasoning works marvelously well in philosophy – not so much in public planning.

Still, get ready one and all for another round of useless deficit targeting. Tradition  demands the February is the month for reckoning the condition of our collective pocketbook. And so, as usual, all the vain assumptions will be assembled. All the projections, masquerading as actual calculations, will be trotted out.

Mr. Alward, meanwhile, may wonder whether prudence, in the absence of anything novel or encouraging to say, now demands his silence.

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Defining moments in Canada’s identity

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Some may quibble with their methods, means and policy agenda. Others may laud their no-nonsense approach to national governance and economic stewardship. But, as the days begin to set on 2013, all must agree that Canada’s Conservative leadership is not the laissez-faire bunch it once proudly billed itself to be. Far from it.

In fact, no federal government since the early 1960s has spent more time deliberately branding itself and, in the process, redefining what it means to be a Canuck – good or bad.

Even those among us who do not subscribe to such late-model Tory notions as patriotism, self-reliance and personal responsibility as social policy must admit that’s it’s never been easier to answer that perennially posed and quintessentially Canadian question: “Who am I?”

Under the Conservatives, Canada is a law-abiding, right-thinking nation of 33 million souls. Forget the Great White North of old: haven for draft dodgers and Liberal elites run amok. Ours is a nation teetering at the edge of chaos, but for our timely embrace of law and order. Or so says the Department of Justice.

“There were almost two million Criminal Code violations reported to police in 2011,” the web site declares. “There were more than 424,400 violent incidents reported to police in 2011. Violent crime accounted for about one-fifth of the offences reported to police in 2011. Although most types of violent crime decreased or remained stable in 2011, there was a 7 per cent increase in the rate of homicides.

“The total costs of crime have been estimated at $99.6B per year – the majority of which ($82.5B or 83%) was borne by victims: $14.3 billion is directly attributable to tangible costs such as medical attention, hospitalizations, lost wages, missed school days, stolen/damaged property. Productivity losses represent 47 per cent of the tangible costs borne by victims followed by stolen/damaged property (42.9 per cent) and health care costs (10.1 per cent). Total intangible costs (including pain and suffering and loss of life) is $68.2 billion.”

Under the Conservatives, Canada is a natural resources behemoth, ready to flood the world with its oil, natural gas and mineral wealth. Forget the people who once went out of their way to represent themselves as anything but hewers of wood and drawers of water. Or so says the Department of Natural Resources.

“Natural resources are an important part of the fabric of Canada’s economy,” declares the web site. “Natural resources are poised to play an even bigger role in our future. . It’s estimated that hundreds of major resource projects are currently underway in Canada or planned over the next 10 years, worth approximately $650 billion in investment. That $650 billion figure represents hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs in every sector of our economy, in every region of Canada.

“That’s why our Government has a plan to unleash Canada’s natural resource potential. We call it Responsible Resource Development. This plan is streamlining reviews of major projects by ensuring more predictable and timely reviews, reducing duplication, strengthening environmental protection, and enhancing consultations with Aboriginal peoples.”

Under the Conservatives, Canada is a proud country, clearly informed by its history. Forget any notion that ours is the only country in the world that was granted its independence after asking for it politely. Or so says Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the official War of 1812 web site:

“The War of 1812 was a seminal event in the making of our great country. On the occasion of its 200th anniversary, I invite all Canadians to share in our history and commemorate our proud and brave ancestors who fought and won against enormous odds. As we near our country’s 150th anniversary in 2017, Canadians have an opportunity to pay tribute to our founders, defining moments, and heroes who fought for Canada.

“The War helped establish our path toward becoming an independent and free country, united under the Crown with a respect for linguistic and ethnic diversity. The heroic efforts of Canadians then helped define who we are today, what side of the border we live on, and which flag we salute.”

Some may quibble with all of this. Under the Conservatives, however, none remain confused for long.

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Cautionary tales from the oil rush

 

What goes up...well, you know

What goes up…well, you know

Forgotten somewhere behind the picket lines in rural New Brunswick, amid the gloomy certitudes about the oil and gas industry’s power to corrupt the environment, lies a more visceral byproduct of resource extraction: crimes not against nature, but humanity.

Canada’s violent offence rate is so low these days, few people associate lawlessness with mining and drilling operations anymore. History, of course, is replete with tales of banditry, thuggery and worse from the front lines and frontiers of assorted gold rushes and oil booms in North America.

There are, as Robert Service (the Arctic’s unofficial poet laureate) once wrote famously, “strange things done in the midnight sun, by the men who moil for gold.” Indeed, “the Arctic trails have their secret tales that would make your blood run cold.” Over the past year, however, such literary apocrypha has become reality in the border territories between western and Canada and the United States.

A New York Times piece, published on Sunday, describes recent disappearances and murders in the high plains of Montana and North Dakota. “Stories like these, once rare, have become as common as drilling rigs in rural towns at the heart of one of the nation’s richest oil booms,” the article reported. “Crime has soared as thousands of workers and rivers of cash have flowed into towns, straining police departments and shattering residents’ sense of safety.”

That observation echoed an earlier Times story in which “Christina Knapp and a friend were drinking shots at a bar in a nearby town several weeks ago when a table of about five men called them over and made an offer. They would pay the women $3,000 to strip naked and serve them beer at their house while they watched mixed martial arts fights on television. Ms. Knapp, 22, declined, but the men kept raising the offer, reaching $7,000. . .Prosecutors and the police note an increase in crimes against women, including domestic and sexual assaults.”

Regarding Canada, a piece in the Regina Leader-Post last April explained, “As the oil belt in southern Saskatchewan, North Dakota and Montana expands, police are grappling to deal with a resulting increase in crime. In our province, that means more traffic crime – specifically, more aggressive and impaired driving charges, as well as more fatal accidents. To address crime trends that have come about as a result of a population increase in the oilfield area, members of the Saskatchewan RCMP from the enforcement, intelligence and border security sections are in the midst of a two-day summit with their U.S. counterparts in Glasgow, Montana.”

Meanwhile, a story published on theatlanticcities.com last month observes that “in 2005, the Williston Police Department in Williston, North Dakota, received 3,796 calls for service. By 2009, the number of yearly calls had almost doubled, to 6,089. In 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, the Williston P.D. received 15,954 calls for service. . .The police department in nearby Watford City received 41 service calls in 2006. In 2011 they received 3,938. That’s life in an energy boomtown.”

Ask a dozen sociologists about the reasons for the phenomenon, and you’re likely to get a dozen different answers. But it seems clear that the word “boomtown” says it all: the uncontrolled explosion of opportunity generates unpredictable consequences – including roving bands of assorted misfits and bad guys – catching institutions, infrastructure and law enforcement off guard.

Here, in New Brunswick, of course, we don’t know much about any of this. The safety and serenity of our bucolic environs has as much to do with the fact that we export our criminals, as well as our law-abiding sons and daughters, out west.

But should the glint in Premier Alward’s eye – and that in those of at least 100 other political and business leaders in this province – ever manifest itself as a pipeline from Alberta into Saint John and/or a commercially viable, environmentally benign, shale gas industry proffering jobs and income, galore, we may want to remind ourselves about the social costs of overnight success.

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No room for pleasantries in real politics

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Despite his occasional partisan bluster – a necessity of elective office, regardless of one’s political flavour – the premier of New Brunswick is a genuinely nice guy who actually cares about other people’s feelings.

In fact, until recently, about the only way to get an authentic rise out of David Alward was to suggest the he and his government ministers were aloof to the concerns of their fellow citizens, content to play king and courtiers in their castle made of sand above the high water mark on Freddy Beach.

“It bugs me,” the pastor’s son (who is a certified psychological counsellor, a former community developer and an active rural hobby farmer) once interrupted himself in mid-interview with yours truly. “I don’t know how anyone could describe us as closed or uncommunicative or not inclusive.”

The truth, of course, is that openness has all but typified the premier’s political oeuvre since he came to govern one of Canada’s defiantly ungovernable provinces in 2010. Where his predecessor, Liberal Premier Shawn Graham, protected his counsel like a NSA agent under house arrest, Mr. Alward has done a contortionist’s job at public events, and in private meetings, explaining, in often exquisite detail, his plans and priorities; in effect, his thinking.

And that may be his biggest problem.

On Friday, the premier was in a rare uncompromising, even antagonistic, mood. Lashing out at anti-shale gas activists in the province, he declared that they represented the point of the spear aimed directly at the heart of natural resources industries here.

“This is not just about SWN (Resources Inc.) being able to develop,” the Telegraph-Journal quoted him. “This not just about Rexton or Kent County and SWN. Mark my words that the same groups that are against seeing SWN move forward with exploration are against projects like Sisson Brook or other potential mining projects we have in New Brunswick. They are against seeing pipelines come across our country to Saint John and creating the prosperity (they) can.”

The denouement of his point was simply this: “The question the New Brunswickers should be asking is ‘what is our vision for our province’? . . .Do we want to have our young people living here in our province building their lives here or are we condemning them to having no choice of where they are going to live in the future?”

These are, indeed, the questions. They have always been the questions. It’s just too bad that Premier Alward has waited until now – less than a year before the provincial election – to pose them with such cogency and force.

In fact, had he spent more time over the past 18 months unapologetically supporting industry’s efforts to ascertain the economic potential of shale gas (indeed, of all promising avenues of natural resources) – and commensurately less time defending his government’s decisions and convening public panels in vain attempts to win friends and influence people – the conversation in this province might now be profoundly different, and radically more productive.

The bottom line is that Mr. Alward’s generally laudable instinct to consult ‘the people’ has also been a lamentable liability of his leadership, and on more files than natural resources.

The awful state of the province’s books – its rolling $500-million deficit on a long-term debt of $11 billion – is not, strictly speaking, the premier’s fault.

Still, in a way, it is.

By refusing to consider raising the provincial portion of the Harmonized Sales Tax, because he promised ‘the people’ he would consult them first, in the form of a referendum, he effectively tied the hands of his Finance Minister and severely compromised New Brunswick’s fiscal recovery from the Great Recession.

Had he forced the province to swallow this bitter, but necessary, pill early in his mandate, the public accounts would have been far healthier than they are today, providing the governing Tories with more and better options for health, education and social policies.

It might even have influenced the debate about shale gas by having eliminated much of the monetary hysteria that now underpins it.

Make no mistake: The consultative, empathetic premier of New Brunswick is a genuinely nice guy.

But, oftentimes, as the saying goes, nice guys finish. . .well, not first.

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Toward a living thing in politics

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Across the River Styx, the heroes of the Underworld extend their hands to shake our own as they muse bravely about the future of this perdition that is New Brunswick.

Or, perhaps, “perdition” doesn’t quite capture the esprit de corps in Canada’s lagging indicator of a province. This is, after all, where the unemployment rate moves up or down by mere tenths of a point, and never more, around the 10 per cent mark.

This is the place where the annual rolling deficit assumes a life of its own despite feckless efforts to reign it back below $500 million.

Meanwhile, in this place, where we be, the trail of breadcrumbs leading our wee Hansels and Gretels due west grows ever broader, ever more inviting.

Perhaps, then, New Brunswick is not so much a country for the damned, but rather this nation’s one, true country for old men (and women).

What say you, provincial NDP Leader Dominic Cardy in your official response to the recent Throne Speech of the reigning Tories?

“We have to think of our seniors as an asset, not a burden, and their experience as an economic engine that can strengthen our economy,” he declared in the Telegraph-Journal this past weekend. “Engaging and unleashing the potential of seniors in the education and social services field will have a significant and immediate benefit.”

Well said, oh ye of great faith, if little actual experience governing anything. The same observation, of course, can be made about his opposite number, Liberal Leader Brian Gallant, who also has a thing or two to say about New Brunswick’s prospects.

“We have to ensure that we invest on ourselves and that we believe in ourselves,” he opined in Saturday’s T-J. “It is the best way to ensure that New Brunswickers can fill the jobs that are waiting for them and that employers can get the jobs that are waiting to be filled.”

It is entirely probably – even guaranteed – that Premier David Alward will voice similar sentiments – very nearly identical ones, in fact – in the weeks and months ahead. He seeks another mandate on the strength of his stewardship of the provincial economy and, again, on the supposition that things will get better if only we have faith in the future of the province’s commercially viable natural resources.

But where the Tories and their rivals part company is in the respective locations of their priorities. And this is substantially a matter of emphasis.

The Throne Speech is, in tone, an almost technocratic document. It talks about people, but largely in a perfunctory way; as the recipients of sound government planning and policy. Individuals emerge as passive participants in the political process and in their own lives, even though they are, and will continue to be, the subject of extensive “consultations” on just about every file in the legislative docket.

In contrast Messrs. Cardy and Gallant (the latter, in particular) proceed from an almost humanist perspective and fill in the policy agenda as they go.

“Investing in knowledge and in ourselves is by far the best economic investment, but, at the same time, it is the best social equalizer,” Mr. Gallant stipulated in his weekend commentary.”. . .All the people who lobby me talk about education or training, whether it is to start growing our economy, whether it is to help their specific businesses,  whether it is to help our children, whether it is to combat obesity, whether it is to increase our literacy rates, or whether it is to eliminate poverty. . .How are we going to do this? First off, we have to believe that we are capable of doing this.”

Implicit in all of this is the contention that New Brunswick is not “going to do this” by exploiting natural resources, alone.

The solution, he suggests, is nestled somewhere in a much bigger picture, a larger and more inclusive vision of the province’s future – a vision that posits classically liberal notions of intellectual and manual dexterity, rather than the machinery corporate exploitation, at the centre of a durable economy.

Messrs. Gallant and Cardy still linger, like the rest of us, in the Underworld, but their notions are beginning to resonate among voters, who are, in the end, the only arbiters of the future who matter.

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