Fracking’s other, hidden challenge


New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant did himself an enormous political favour during his recent election campaign by sticking to his guns, insisting that he would follow through with a temporary ban on hydraulic fracturing in the province until experts convinced him that the drilling practice is broadly benign.

After all, the one thing a lightly informed voter can get behind is a candidate for elected office who successfully appeals to the public’s expectation of clean water, air and soil.

But whether or not you believe fellows like Gywn Morgan, a former Canadian energy executive, who recently argued in a Globe an Mail commentary that the “technology. . .has one of the most impressive industrial safety records ever compiled,” that “in the United States, where some 1.2 million wells have been hydraulically fractured over the past 60 years, the Bureau of Land Management and the Environmental Protection Agency have found no supportable evidence of fracture-induced water contamination,” and that, “here in Canada, more than 200,000 wells have been fractured in Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan with a similarly sterling record,” another problem emerges – one that’s not so cut and dry.

The chief argument for permitting the development of tight, onshore oil and gas plays in New Brunswick is economic. In fact, proponents routinely insist, it’s a no-braine:  the province needs jobs and the government needs new sources of money (i.e., taxes and/or royalties from production companies) to balance its books and pay down its accumulated debt. If fracking, girded by effective regulations, is safe, then what are we waiting for? Drill, baby, drill!

But what if the economics of shale gas extraction – at least to the host jurisdictions – are not always as attractive or predictable as they appear?

Jeremy Scott of Forbes magazine recently examined various U.S. state budgets, noting that, for the third consecutive year, overall tax revenues have risen. Referencing some enlightening numbers-crunching by Todd Haggerty, a policy specialist in the fiscal affairs department of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), Mr. Scott reported “state tax revenues went up 6.1 per cent in fiscal 2013 to a total of $846 billion, says the NCSL. Personal income tax revenues were up 10.3 per cent, while corporate collections surged 7.9 per cent.”

In fact, those states that opened their doors to frackers some years ago, have been leading the boom in tax dollars. Says the Forbes piece: “In 2004 North Dakota’s severance tax (a levy imposed on producers in the United States for mining or otherwise extracting non-renewable resources) raised $175 million a year. In 2013, it raised $2.46 billion. West Virginia’s boom hasn’t been as dramatic as North Dakota’s, but its severance tax revenue increased from $204 million in 2004 to $608 million in 2013.”

On the other hand, “in Kentucky, severance taxes raised $172 million in 2003, rose to $346 million in 2012, but then dropped back to $269 million in 2013.”

And herein lies the problem. The oil and gas industry is notoriously fickle and subject to its own pricing, supply and demand cycles. The industry can reliably guarantee a certain amount of economic activity accruing from its ministrations, especially at the outset of full, commercial production, but those assurances become less dependable as time goes on.    

“Kentucky illustrates the problem with relying on severance taxes and the fracking boom for revenue stability,” Mr. Scott writes. “As traditional energy states like Texas have shown, taxes on the extraction of natural gas can fluctuate wildly. Texas raised $974 million from severance taxes in 2004, $4.1 billion in 2008, $1.9 billion in 2010, and then $4.6 billion. That’s healthy growth, but it’s hardly consistent. Colorado is an even better example. Its severance tax revenue rose from $37 million in 2003 to $285 million in 2009, before falling back to $71 million in 2010.”

Of course, to fracking’s true believers in New Brunswick (and there are still a few), such revenue instability is better than no revenue at all.

But it could become a nightmare for any premier who, once convinced of fracking’s safety, relies too heavily on its proceeds to balance the public accounts.

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