Tag Archives: shale gas

The roiling tale of two imaginary pipelines

DSC_0047

In one hand, New Brunswick grips the key to its putative economic salvation; a pipeline spanning the better part of the second-largest landmass on the planet, from the oil fields and tar sands of Alberta right into little, old, plucky Saint John where the Irving refinery awaits, with bated breath, another profitable lease on life.

In the other, the picture-perfect province loosens it grip on everything its forebears allegedly designed (a healthy, self-sufficient, environmentally pristine part of the world) in the backwash of a curtailed and stolen future; a pipeline that would foul the ground, incinerate communities and spoil the water; a horrible industrial project that would return fleeting boons to short-term-thinking politicians, their confederates in commerce and not much else.

It’s odd how deliberately these opposing views manage to express themselves in New Brunswick’s print and broadcast media – as if never the twain shall meet, as if we, the sidelined majority, have nothing useful to lend to the debate over the province’s energy providence except, of course, our taxes and (sigh) our ears.

“Putative” and “alleged” are good words to describe the cases for and against a pipeline that does not, in fact, yet exist.

There are, of course, several ways to build a permanent way into a community. None of these, however, should have anything to do with terrorizing the citizenry or fictionalizing the landscape.

When Colleen Mitchell, president of Atlantica Centre for Energy, boosts on the front page of the Saint John Telegraph-Journal the benefits of an East Coast pipeline (without, I will note, a word of reasonable rebuttal), her kite flew so low, her hot air claimed its tail. She both terrorized the citizenry and fictionalized the landscape.

Here she is on her extraordinarily well-written rant:

“Five years (after the Great Recession of 2008) the gap between Atlantic Canada and the rest of Canada remains significant. . .The development of key oil and gas projects have the potential to reverse these economic trends. . .This project (TransCanada’s East Energy pipeline) is of such significance that if it proceeds to completion it will have a profound impact on the Atlantic region”

So profound, she says, it could amount to $35.3-billion in new gross domestic product across the country. So profound, she says, it could result in $266 million in new taxes to New Brunswick (during pipefitting) and maybe as much as $500 million after that. Moreover, she claimed with the sort of authority only an insider gets (and, trust me, she’s no insider), Irving Oil might just well spend upwards of $2 billion upgrading its coking and refining facilities in Saint John.

Oh, really?

This is irresponsible, unverified piffle; its feedstock derives directly from industry, itself. There is no way to credibly measure the merits of her assessments, just as there is no way to calibrate the real value of what she parrots are vast reserves of trapped shale gas in New Brunswick sedimentary rock. Why? Because industry, itself, is still reckoning the commercial viability of the resource. And, frankly, they’re not talking (which, in and of itself, should tell us something).

Still, she’s not the only partisan in the arena. Bid a welcome to the died-in-the-wool naysayers, who would rather buy their hemp oil from The Body Shop than see any of the dirty, necessary stuff that fuels their spectacularly energy-efficient homes spoil their golf-course-sized and well-fertilized lawns and gardens splendidly attended by certified “green” landscapers.

TransCanada Corp. has run afoul of four of nine National Energy Board regulations regarding its proper care and feeding of pipelines. This motivates New Brunswick Green Party honcho David Coon to theorize that “anything that suggests an increased risk of leaks will make everyone nervous.”

Furthermore, he postulates, “Since Stephen Harper has been prime minister, his orientation has been to ensure the National Energy Board is greasing the wheels of pipeline construction, not slowing it down because of things like safety and environmental impact.”

In other words, he seems to be saying, since the National Energy Board is, ipso facto, already compromised by the Conservative agenda, we must assume that its recent “harsh” judgement of TransCanada Corp. actually amounts  kid gloves’ treatment.

Again, so much for empirical evidence.

In one hand, the conspiracy theorists taketh away.

In the other, the apologists giveth back.

And, finally, no hands actually come together.

Tagged , ,

Plotting some common ground for shale gas

Beyond the headland, off to meet the horizon

It is only my uncommon determination to discount the fruits of my fevered and hyperactive imagination that prevents me from earnestly entertaining my latest New Brunswick Economic Development Conspiracy Theory, version 2.0.

But for this mindful discipline, however, my theory might go a little like this:

At some point in the not-too-distant past, Progressive Conservative Premier David Alward sat down with Liberal Opposition Leader Brian Gallant in a dark, windowless room in the basement of one of New Brunswick’s seedier hotels. They had agreed to meet to hatch a plot, the outcome of which, then prayed, would be to their mutual advantage.

Each man knew that the shale gas controversy was not going away any time soon. Too much emotional capital had been spent for either opponents or their opposite numbers in industry to retreat from the front lines of lunacy. Too much empty rhetoric had been spilt for the sake of hearing one’s voice repeated ceaselessly on the nightly newscasts.

Yet, as political leaders, Messrs. Alward and Gallant recognized their respective responsibilities to take firm and preferably opposing positions on the issue.

The problem was that they also recognized, in each other, if not kindred spirits then at least a meeting of minds.

Though Mr. Alward argued publicly that shale gas was New Brunswick’s last, best hope for economic salvation, in his heart he worried about the environmental impact of an industry whose North American track record was, at best, spotty.

Conversely, though Mr. Gallant vigorously called for a moratorium on exploration and development until such time as two new studies shed better light on the subject, in his heart he worried about the province’s long-term economic future without the royalties and taxes a shale gas industry would generate.

The question, they reckoned, was how to have one’s cake and eat it too. Is it possible to satisfy both commercial and community interests without requiring unacceptably high sacrifices?

The related, if more urgent, question was how to take the mickey out of the public debate long enough to peaceably erect an industrial and regulatory apparatus acceptable to all but the most ardent green warriors (certainly all the Tories and Grits from here to the horizon)

And their stratagem?

That’s easy: Bore everyone to death, or at least until most people in the province would rather have their incisors pulled than stand to listen to a) one more meaningless, partisan diatribe about the dangers of hydraulic fracturing; and b) one more corporate shill expounding on the environmentally risk-free bounties from that friendliest of all fossil fuels.

Once the electorate is properly and finally focussed on other, more diverting  affairs like, say, the homophobic Winter Olympics 2014 (and not constantly expected to tender their proudly uniformed opinions, for or against shale gas) then, and only then, can the real, grown-up, bipartisan work of shaping a safe, regulated, productive, job-generating, income-producing, made-in-New Brunswick solution; the envy of the industrialized world.

Yup, it’s a nice theory and it does look good on paper. Too bad it’s bogus.

That constant whining sound emanating from Fredericton’s political class on the subject of shale gas is merely the all-too-familiar politics of disputation for the sake of disputation. No plan; nothing special. It’s politics as usual; that is to say, as usual Premier Alward blasts Mr. Gallant for standing soft on the issue and Mr. Gallant returns the favour by charging Mr. Alward with willful misrepresentation.

In fact, of the two, Mr. Gallant is more consistently correct and thoughtful with his criticism. But, at this point – where we seem to have come to a full stop, crumpled over by the burden of all our words – does it matter?

Where are our deeds? Where is our determination to forge practical alliances that span party and ideological lines to extract and sell our natural resources as safely and sustainably as possible?

While we’re at it, where is our courage to collectively face the essential energy paradox of our times – that we actually need the cleaner-burning fossil fuels to bridge us and our technologies to a greener more renewable future?

In the end, alas, politics upends even our finest conspiracies.

Tagged , , ,

The stiff upper lip to success

DSC_0026

New Brunswick’s estimable finance minister, Blaine Higgs, promises as a matter of course that he will announce no new tax hikes at next month’s grand budget reveal. To which we curtsy politely and thank the graveyard of foreboding that dominates Fredericton for small mercies.

Still, at this stage in the daily, grinding, “this-too-shall-pass” culture of what is, indisputably, Canada’s least economically promising province, higher taxes will serve precisely no purpose.

The time for a boost in the HST was four years ago. Today, when a precipitous drop in revenue to government coffers is related entirely to a concomitant decline in business income, the taxman’s various dogs just won’t hunt anymore.

Meanwhile, the list of likely economic saviors grows ever longer, even as it begins to blur the boundaries of credibility.

There is a pipeline into Saint John. It will, we are assured, bring Alberta oil into the Port City for refining and subsequent export to locales both exotic and mundane. In the process, it will employ hundreds of skilled and able-bodied men and women (thousands during the construction phase). At least, that’s the scuttlebutt. Boosters are still looking for the project’s starter pistol, which seems to have gone missing.

There is some fresh promise in the mining sector, no thanks to The Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan which, according to a CBC report in early December,  “issued a blow to one of the Alward government’s hopes for job creation in the province.

The company is laying off more than 1,000 people, including 130 in New Brunswick, due to what it describes as slumping demand for its potash and phosphates, which are used to make fertilizer. . .Just last week the provincial government issued a request for expression of interest to explore for and mine potash in New Brunswick.”

Of course, there is always (groan!) shale gas. In fact, there might be 70 trillion cubic feet of the stuff below ground in New Brunswick. If any of it is extractable in a commercially viable sort of way (that is, before oil and gas prices wobble too far into the red zone), then a new fossil fuel industry could create hundreds of jobs and top up the government’s bank account with new taxes and royalties.

On the other hand, there is the little matter of the screaming meemies to which the chronically anxious among us succumb whenever the phrases “government oversight” and “hydraulic fracturing” appear in the same sentence.

It appears that the rest of us are fated to follow their lead as it is embraced by the next premier of the province, Brian Gallant, who has already announced his planned moratorium on further shale gas development once he trundles into power this fall.

And yet, somewhere, in all of this, we’re missing something vital, and it’s getting us down. Behind every commercial and industrial project – large, like a pipeline; or small, like a high-tech joint venture – are people.

That may sound trite, but our tendency is to perceive our economy as intractably composed of forces that are largely beyond our control. This is the language we allow our political leaders to adopt when times are tough and they shrug their shoulders in defeat: “Hey. . .Whaddya gonna do?”

In most cases, the answer to that question is: “Plenty.”

New Brunswick’s future might look rosier than it presently does if mega-deals for oil and gas and other natural resources were firmly on track. Still, this is not the alpha and omega of the province’s potential.

The real, durable future is being written in the idea factories of the private sector, in the common markets of the province’s small cities and feeder towns and villages, on the entrepreneurial front lines where problems are things you solve and obstacles are things you hurdle.

Listen closely, and you will still hear the relentless hum of enterprise, which remains happily oblivious to the macroeconomic demons that torture the province’s elected leaders, appointed officials and, as often as not, professional chatterers like Yours Truly.

If, as one of my colleagues in arms recently claimed, GDP is two-thirds consumer confidence, then attitude is everything.

Perhaps, then, we should try stiffening our lips and, for once, whistle obstinately past that graveyard of foreboding.

Tagged , , , ,

It’s time to stop thinking magically about the future

DSC_0126

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.

Tagged , , , , ,

Same old, tired chestnuts of office

DSC_0047

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.

Tagged , , ,

2013: The year of treading water

U.S. economy may be heading for a hard, post-election landing

N.B. economy is heading for a repeat of 2013. . .only worse

New Brunswick enters the new year much as it did the outgoing one: Treading shark-infested waters, praying that the mighty predators will ignore it in favour of fatter, tastier castaways.

Under the grim circumstances, it’s a miracle that the government of David Alward was able to accomplish the little it did.

In 2013, population growth was at a standstill, general unemployment was among the worst in Canada (especially among what remains of the youthful labour force), the participation rate (those actively searching for work) was in a nose dive. About the only bright spot was low inflation and a relatively fixed consumer price index (measured in 2002 dollars).

Worse, perhaps, than any of this was the evident lack of new economic opportunities, without which the annual provincial deficit was fated to hover at $500 million on a structural, long-term debt of at least $11 billion in perpetuity. Theoretically, that meant that every New Brunswicker was on the hook for thousands of dollars.

The reality was that fewer public services were available to a dwindling number of people. And in the absence of any real vision for the future – any sense that timely sacrifices will ultimately yield durable boons – the province descended into caterwauling and complaining.

Some, of course, did their best to reverse the tide of bitterness and recrimination, while acknowledging the patently obvious.

“What we are facing in New Brunswick is a structural, secular decline,” former premier and current deputy chairman of T-D Bank Frank McKenna told me one wintery afternoon in his downtown Toronto office. “The problems we have don’t ebb and flow with the quality of our leadership. There is something more serious going on here. We face circumstances that combine to create a very negative outlook. The entire atmosphere is hugely challenging.”

In fact, he said, “the resource base that remains can be exploited with fewer workers and more mechanization, so it can’t support the number of workers that it once did. Yet, we remain a resource-based economy in a world where the Canadian dollar looks to be in a fairly constant state of parity with the U.S. dollar. So, this, too, is a peril.”

And yet, he said, “Even though I think our situation in New Brunswick is quite pessimistic, I don’t think that it is terminal. There are many places in the world that have faced dramatic challenges. In fact, adversity, itself, became the platform upon which they built sustainable economies. . . This isn’t just a problem of leadership in government. It’s also a problem of followership.

“Our citizens have to understand the full depth and breadth of the dilemma that we are facing, and they have to be prepared to face up to some inconvenient truths. It means that they have to become less reliant on government and more entrepreneurial. It means that they have to take responsibility for their own futures.”

For Mr. McKenna and, indeed, Mr. Alward, taking responsibility for the future means brining Alberta oil east for refining in Saint John – which would create thousands of construction jobs – and developing the province’s nascent shale gas industry.

“The way I look at it,” Mr. McKenna said, “the real win comes when we take our indigenous shale gas in the province and hook it into the Canaport liquified natural gas (LNG) facility in Saint John.”

His voice rose as his enthusiasm peaked. “We have in situ now, calculated by Corridor Resources Inc., 67 trillion cubic feet of gas. That’s bigger than western Canada. It’s a huge deposit. If ten per cent is exploitable, that’s enough to create a revenue source for New Brunswick for decades to come. All in, it would result in about $15-20 billion in investment and 150,000 person years of work. And for governments, it would result in between $7-9 billion worth of royalties and taxes.”

By and large, however, these were mere musings of a former public official. They did little to quell the outrage of a vocal minority of residents – people who firmly believed the provincial government had no business encouraging the development of an industry that they said would poison them.

Would it poison them? Was there, instead, a safe, environmentally responsible approach to the whole affair?

The issue will carry forward into 2014 and, like just about every other issue in New Brunswick, remain there unresolved, as the sharks keep circling.

Tagged , , ,

The political art of fomenting depression

DSC_0224

What’s perplexing about the David Alward government’s decision to spend a few thousand taxpayer bucks on TV ads showing New Brunswickers mourning the state of their province’s economy is not that it reflects poorly on our lawmakers’ vision of the future.

What’s perplexing is that our lawmakers seem to believe it reflects well on their own political fortunes.

Less than a year before the general election, the Tories are bringing up the rear in popular opinion. Poll after poll suggests that if the ballot were held today, they’d lose to Brian Gallant’s Liberals by a wide margin.

This somehow impels the big brains who occupy the small offices reserved for government communications to remind New Brunswickers in convincing fashion, and just before the holidays, that the past three-plus years in office have been an unmitigated disaster for the Progressive Conservatives.

The ads show various men and women, who are presumably en route to the oil-black and money-green pastures of western Canada, hanging out on tarmacks and in airport departure lounges, their brows appropriately furrowed.

“I’ve been going for four years,” says one.

“We haven’t got enough opportunities here, we have to go do it out west,” says another.

Finally, up pops the kicker, accompanied by a stern-sounding VoiceOver: “This message is brought to you by the Government of New Brunswick.”

Now, we witness the game, if untried, Mr. Gallant mumbling under his breath and, indeed, over it: “Thank you, Mr. Alward, you just made my day.”

Of course, in the local media, he sounds more like this:

“New Brunswickers don’t need an ad to tell them that there aren’t enough jobs in New Brunswick. This is an ad that is virtually discouraging people to stay and invest in New Brunswick. It’s even demoralizing.”

To which, Premier Alward retorts, “Every day there are families that are living with separation and we believe there are good options long term to see our economy be stronger, our province be stronger, and our people be able to decide to be here and build their communities here. . .It’s a message to all New Brunswickers that we need to be saying yes to allow development to take place.”

Well. . .no, actually.

It is a message to all New Brunswickers that they are at death’s doorstep, and that their only salvation is via the kool aid of shale gas development, which may or not be true. (It’s too early to know anything with certainty).

What I do know, from my years in the marketing communications and advertising industry (I call them my “lucrative” epoch), is that scaring the bejesus out of people is guaranteed to produce only one, durable response: shoot the messenger.

Again, Mr. Alward, Mr. Gallant thanks you.

What’s intriguing about all of this is just how unnecessary it is.

The Alward government holds all the cards in the shale gas industry deck. Its regulations for development are, purportedly, the toughest in North America. It has the benefit of knowing all the best and worst practices. It even has a scientific panel, convened to guide its decisions (though only The Almighty knows when this efficacious advice will be forthcoming).

What’s more, its foes on this file are, though vocal, largely in the minority.

If it truly wants to win the hearts and minds of the majority, why doesn’t it produce ads that speak directly to the issue – spots that fight the fictions swirling around shale gas with facts?

Why not emphasize the positive attributes of an industry that, properly regulated, could help transform the province’s economy – thanks to the money it will generate for public coffers – into an incubator of commercially viable innovations in sectors not specifically related to resource extraction?

Those who argue that the provincial government has no business using public dollars to promote its economic agenda are, among other things, on the wrong side of history. Governments do this sort of thing all the time. In fact, we expect it of them, especially when they don’t do it. What is tourism, except a giant public-sector promotion campaign?

This Tory reign has staked its mandate on transforming the New Brunswick economy through its responsible stewardship of natural resources. Its most recent ad campaign, however, indicates that it has not yet learned how best communicate this otherwise clear and simple message.

Meanwhile, as goes its mandate, so goes any chance New Brunswick has of seizing its future for its now-departing citizens.

Tagged ,

Institute’s mandate in search of a reason

DSC_0153

The last thing New Brunswick needs is yet another reason to bloviate about the provincial government’s diabolical plans to shove shale gas down the throats of its citizens. But for a polity that seems bound and determined to leave most of our natural resources in the ground, we do seem extraordinarily skilled at mass-producing hot air.

In an interview with CBC Radio out of Saint John last Thursday, Fred Metallic – a member of Listuguj First Nations in Quebec and a PhD in environmental science – explained why he suddenly quit the scientific advisory council of the New Brunswick Energy Institute, whose purpose is, according to its website, “to examine the science surrounding energy possibilities in our province.”

Declared Mr. Metallic: “When I was approached by the Institute. . .we were going to take a citizen-based approach to the development of energy. As a First Nations researcher, I generally work with people and (so) this was compatible with the way I like to approach (things). . .We did discuss aboriginal issues. However, these issues were not a priority, unfortunately. The priorities were more around the technology around shale gas development.”

What’s more, Mr. Metallic lamented, “At this point, the institute is more concerned about the government’s plans to develop shale gas and other forms of energy. It is more concerned about industry and whether industry and science can work together to ensure that these resources are developed safely. As First Nations researcher, I didn’t see First Nations issues to be central and that was a concern for me.

In the end, he said, “I have more faith in people to want to move things forward than I do with government, sometimes.”

Of course, that’s it in a nutshell. Isn’t it? Here is the cri de coeur of the modern age. And you don’t have to be a member of a First Nation to utter it.

Having little faith in governments is simply de rigueur these days, and not just for cultural warriors and libertarian trendsetters. Everyone – liberals, conservatives, radicals, reactionaries, progressives, the one per cent and the remaining 99 per cent – wants to thump his chest with one hand and with the other grab the nearest elected official by the scruff of his scrawny neck and declare: “You, sir, are a cad!”

But before we get caught up in this, the standard plot line, and cut and paste it to this, the latest chapter in the shale gas melodrama, it behooves us to recognize what, exactly, the New Brunswick Energy Institute actually does – which is, quite frankly, a whole lot of nothing.

“We feel that the institute is a scientific body,” Energy and Mines Minister Craig Leonard told the CBC last week as he gamely defended his government’s decision create it on the advice of departed and forcibly humbled academic Louis LaPierre. “The place for discussing treaty rights with First Nations is within government, itself. We want to keep those two separate.”

This is, of course, utter nonsense. The technology that enables shale gas drilling and the fracked ground that treaties may (or may not) protect as a collective resource (including the water therein) comprise a single issue.

But, the point is, the provincial government doesn’t appear to be enjoying much success on either of the issue’s constituent parts: nurturing scientific inquiry or ameliorating people’s concerns

In the case of the former, the number of “ongoing” research projects at the Institute number in the single digits, as in, zero. Ditto for the number of “requests for proposals”.

According to a Telegraph-Journal report last week, “Energy institute executive director Annie Daigle attempted to clarify the body’s mandate on Thursday, stating that its direction had been ‘muddied’ of late.”

She added: “Things sort of came to a standstill for a month and a half to two months. We haven’t developed any research, we haven’t signed any contracts or anything like that, and we haven’t put out the request for proposals for that work.

It is being reviewed by the scientific advisory council. We had some setbacks over the last couple of months, so we are just trying to get back on track.”

All of which suggests that if the provincial government is trying to shove shale gas down the throats of New Brunswickers, it isn’t yet relying on the Energy Institute for practical support.

Tagged , , , ,

No room for pleasantries in real politics

DSC_0027

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.

Tagged , , , , , ,

A good try, but say good-bye PCs

Fame is so fleeting, so cold in its remembrance

Fame is so fleeting, so cold in its remembrance

The New Brunswick election is 11 months out, and I’m calling the odds.

David Alward’s pseudo-Tory juggernaut – that un-merry band of hometown heroes who thrashed the brash Shawn Graham and his ineffectual Liberals in convincing fashion three years ago – is dead on arrival.

Other metaphors spring to mind.

There’s “toast” and “belly-up.” There’s “froggies on a slow boil.” There’s knocked and knackered and out cold.

But however you term the imminent future of New Brunswick’s sitting government, the conclusion that it has become as useful to this province as a pocket is on the back of a shirt is impossible to escape.

Still, somehow, the shirt continues to fit in the minds of those who craft things like Throne Speeches, the most recent of which – delivered Tuesday – leaves no issue unmentioned, though few merit much more than passing references.

As for the forestry, in the upcoming year, our government promises to implement “a strategy to ensure New Brunswick has a competitive industry for generations to come” – whatever that means.

Meanwhile, “on the innovation front. . .in the coming year” our government’s focus on research and innovation will start “bearing fruit” as “other policies and initiatives are being designed to bolster our knowledge economy and create new, sustainable jobs.” The specifics, apparently, are temporarily unavailable.

There’s neat stuff on culture. “By establishing a Premier’s Task Force on the Status of the Artist, your government will work towards recognizing and supporting the profession of artists in our province.”

There’s a cool measure to protect personal pocketbooks. “Your government plans to introduce amendments to unproclaimed legislation aimed at regulating payday loans to create an effective regulatory regime.”

Where the Alward government appears unequivocal, clear-eyed and firm is on the subject of natural gas – shale gas, in particular. In fact, the “responsible” exploitation of all the province’s commercially viable natural resources has become the Tories’ single loudest rallying cry leading to the next election.

“As you may recall, your government has done a great deal of work towards making sure that our natural resources – and, in particular, our natural gas potential – are identified to determine whether there is potential for economic benefits in the future,” the Throne Speech notes. “Economic benefits that could be derived from our natural resources are what will allow government to help fund and improve education, health care and many other services in the years ahead.

“Backed by the strongest rules for industry, introduced in February, as well as an action-oriented Oil and Natural Gas Blueprint for New Brunswick, introduced in May, your government will continue on the course of responsible exploration and development.

“A key aspect of managing oil and natural gas development is ensuring that the province secures a fair return to New Brunswickers for our resources. Your government recently announced a new natural gas royalty regime that ensures a fair return to New Brunswickers while encouraging investment in this sector.”

To many in the Progressive Conservative camp (and outside of it), this is the economically right thing to do. And Premier Alward and his team deserve praise for sticking to their principles regarding shale gas. New Brunswick is the only province in Canada that has not posted job gains in the past year; its $500-million annual deficit is beginning to resemble a permanent feature of the landscape.

But common sense rarely wins elections. Voters in this province are in no mood to award power to anyone. They’re far more apt to deny an incumbent his mandate, especially if that mandate depends on the most incendiary issue to come along in this province for many years.

Shale gas is not about royalty regimes, deficit reduction, and funding increases to social programs. In New Brunswick, it’s about symbols of justice, law and morality. It’s about defending the little guy against the big, bad, rapacious corporate elite. It’s about taking a stand in the absence of a trustworthy, faithful government.

In other words, a lot of it is pure nonsense.

Still, no party – Tory, Grit or otherwise – can win against those odds.

Tagged , , , , ,
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 580 other followers

%d bloggers like this: