What are true benefits of an eastern pipeline?

As New Brunswick Premier David Alward fluffs the pillows and hoovers the welcome mat for his oil-rich, Alberta counterpart, who arrives for a chin-wag in Fredericton later this week, hope – with just a hint of desperation – is in the air.

Almost nothing, it is safe to say, has so animated this government’s aspirations for long-term prosperity than the promise of a west-east pipeline terminating at Saint John, where the mighty petroleum empire of Irving Oil holds sway over the Fundy basin. Indeed, Mr. Alward has designated the endeavour – still only a happy preoccupation – the crown jewel of his economic portfolio.

Some months ago, in an interview, he told me, “We’re investing significant energy in this. We’re meeting with leaders right across the country to see if there is a business case. We believe this could be as important to this century as the railroad was in the past.”

Naturally, then, Premier Alison Redford’s visit is about as propitious as it gets. According to news reports, she will tour Irving Oil’s refinery, address the Saint John Board of Trade and say a few words to the legislative assembly. Presumably, the VIP treatment will extend to the moment she boards a plane for her return trip home.

All of which is an entirely understandable, even reasonable, way for New Brunswick’s political elite to behave. After all, steering the provincial economy to even the semblance of a safe haven is proving tougher than fracking gas from a tight play (the other illusory gem in the diadem).

Still, it’s not the 6,000 or even 10,000 jobs a pipeline would immediately generate  during the construction phase that principally matter. It‘s the degree to which the enterprise – should it come to fruition – manages to change the economic culture of the province – from one that is, too often, underachieving, unimaginative and impassive, to one that is assertive, innovative and responsive.

Historically, Atlantic Canada has measured its economic well-being by the number of mega-projects it undertakes. The Atlantic Provinces Economic Council (APEC) – arguably, the region’s leading, independent think tank on such matters – leads the news whenever it releases its annual compendium of major industrial initiatives. This week is no exception.

“It (APEC) says the 388 projects in Atlantic Canada account for a record $115 billion worth of investment, an increase of 15 per cent over 2012,” The Canadian Press reported yesterday. “In Newfoundland and Labrador, investment in major projects is up 12 per cent over the previous year, with 113 developments totalling $54 billion. Nova Scotia trails behind in investment with 156 projects worth $40 billion, an increase of 23 per cent over last year mostly due to a proposed $5-billion liquefied natural gas export facility at Goldboro. The council says the potential for a west-east oil pipeline in New Brunswick and new housing projects in P.E.I. have also contributed to the increase.

It says current-year spending on major projects in Atlantic Canada has grown by five per cent to a record $14.3 billion.”

The news source quoted APEC’s major projects director Patrick Brannon, who said in an interview, “It’s catching national attention. Certainly people are looking now to Atlantic Canada for opportunities. There’s a growing investment from foreign companies in Atlantic Canada. They see the opportunities of our commodities and our resources as a future growth area for them, and they’re focusing their funding in this region now.”

Well, yes and no. Only a few months go, APEC painted an entirely different picture of the region’s economic condition, calling it “weak” and blaming it for the persistent and pernicious deficits and debts that plague the provinces. “New Brunswick had the largest deterioration in fiscal performance in the Maritime provinces in 2012/2013 with its deficit more than doubling to $411 million,” it said in a news release. “The government is examining a number of revenue measures, such as raising its Harmonized Sales Tax (HST), introducing a health care premium or retracting previous income tax reductions in an effort to return to balance.”

This is the economic dialectic of our region: booming and busting; cycling up and cycling down; hoping and despairing.

An west-east pipeline is an enormous opportunity for New Brunswick, but only if we learn how to sustain its immediate impact durably; in a culture of novelty and innovation.

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