Category Archives: Oil and Gas

On the shale gas merry-go-round

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The on-again, off-again shale gas industry in New Brunswick is less impressive for its estimated 70-trillion cubic feet of exploitable resource than for its verifiably inexhaustible supply of deja-vu moments.

Last week, Energy Minister Donald Arseneault introduced a new “panel” of experts – comprised of New Brunswick former chief justice Guy Richard, former University of New Brunswick President John McLaughlin and former chairwoman of New Brunswick Community College Cheryl Robertson – who will spend the next few months assembling the “true facts” about the practice of hydraulic fracturing, on which the Liberal government has slapped a moratorium.

Said Mr. Arsenault at news conference in Fredericton last Tuesday: “It’s an independent commission. . .They have carte blanche. I don’t want to prejudge how they are going to do their work. Justice Richard, as well as the two commissioners. . .will have the opportunity to consult who they feel can contribute to this process.”

All of which feels eerily familiar. A couple of years ago, the pro-shale gas Progressive Conservative government established the New Brunswick Energy Institute (NBEI) to, among other things, conduct research on shale gas development, including hydraulic fracturing, as an “independent” body of experts, beholden to nothing no one but their own findings and consciences.

Its mandate was, and is, “to commission and oversee scientific research in New Brunswick, peer review relevant research from other jurisdictions, and provide access to the information for New Brunswickers in an easily understood format so it can be considered in forming opinions about appropriate courses of action in the energy sector.”

Its mission statement elaborates on this role “to fund and foster research, which will assist with the understanding of, and decision making related to, energy issues and potential development in New Brunswick (including exploration, production, transportation, transmission and utilization.”

It’s also charged with examining “energy-related research and observations in other jurisdictions, to assess their value and relevance to the New Brunswick scene; to communicate the Institute’s findings in a clear, objective and comprehensive fashion to all New Brunswickers, including both the public and decision makers; and, to provide advice to the Government, either unsolicited, or upon request.”

Now that the Grits seemed determined to reinvent the wheel with its own panel of  commissioners, what tidings bode for the Institute? In a brief phone interview last week, David Besner, chair of its Scientific Advisory Council, told me that he is, in effect, waiting and seeing. As for Justice Richard, et. al., and whether or not they will play with the NBEI in the same sandbox, Mr. Besner said, “I haven’t been told anything. . .it’s just what I read (in the newspaper).”

Which, in fact, isn’t very much – though not for lack of sound reporting. Clarity just doesn’t seem to be any government’s forte when it comes to managing natural resources in this province.

When the Tories established the NBEI in 2013, they spent weeks attempting, mostly unsuccessfully, to explain just what the organization was supposed to accomplish. Now, the Grits find themselves with the same rhetorical problem.

To insist that the new panel has “carte blanche” says precisely nothing about its real purpose. Is it to objectively weigh the progress (or lack thereof) on the five conditions the provincial government requires industry to meet before lifting the moratorium on hydraulic fracturing? Or, is it to provide their political masters with a convenient, if respectable, third-party endorsement of its current policies regarding shale gas development?

As Mr. Arseneault says, “It’s a very heated topic. At the same time it’s a very important topic. . .Some people will never change their minds.”

Again, where have we heard that before?

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Isn’t it good, Norwegian wood?

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The sweepstakes that is the oil and gas sector is dominated by short-game players – those who build and boom and inevitably bust and break the bank to survive until the next cycle comes round to titillate the itinerate wildcatters of the corporate world.

In their wake, of course, people lose their jobs, houses, bank accounts, and any semblance of stability and security. If you don’t believe me, just look what $48-a-barrel oil is currently doing to Alberta’s economy. It’s now cheaper to leave the stuff in the ground; two years ago, such a proposition would have been heretical to the financial institutions that happily floated low-interest debt to exploration and drilling companies.

In this volatile segment of the natural resources sector, things change – and they change fast. Understanding precisely how this calculus works has never been a strong suit of any provincial or territorial government in Canada. The words “protecting the downside” has rarely issued from the mouths of energy-rich premiers (not, at least, since the days of former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed, who had the good sense to siphon billions of dollars from the petro-economy into a “heritage fund” in the mid 1970s to, again, protect against the inevitable downside associated with oil and gas development).

Of course, here in New Brunswick, which sits on a potential resource of 70-trillion-cubic feet of shale gas, we don’t endure this particular problem. Oh, lucky us! For, as we hem and haw over the proper “social licenses” that our long-term debt purchases in place of responsible tight-play development, our collective complacency about the future keeps us warm, cozy and competitively irrelevant on a planet that, oftentimes, prefers to face its challenges head on.

But should we ever choose to join that planet, we would do well to rip a page from Norway’s playbook on managing a vast oil and gas industry without falling prey to the temptations of short-game profiteering, gambling and other parlor tricks of chance.

A nice piece by Susan Ormiston, posted on the CBC news site last week, explains fulsomely how that Scandinavian country of five million souls got its energy portfolio right decades ago.

“Norway today sits on top of a $1-trillion pension fund established in 1990 to invest the returns of oil and gas,” she writes. “The capital has been invested in over 9,000 companies worldwide, including over 200 in Canada. It is now the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world. By contrast, Alberta’s Heritage Savings Fund, established in 1976 by premier Peter Lougheed, sits at only $17 billion and has been raided by governments and starved of contributions for years.

Quoting Rolf Wiborg, a former oil and gas engineer with the Norwegian government, Ms. Ormiston reports, “For the last 10 years, when nothing went into the Alberta fund, and we put a lot of money aside, the profit went out of Canada.”

The result: Every citizen of that cold, northern country is a technical millionaire. Meanwhile, every citizen of this cold, northern country. . .well, isn’t.

The secret, Wiborg says, is simply that Norway “doesn’t change” its “policies with the changes in the oil price – you can’t do that. Lougheed’s government in Alberta knew that. They made policies, then they left them behind.”

Meanwhile, the Government of Canada, which counts on a certain stipend from the oil and gas sector to balance the national accounts, not only changes its polices routinely; it changes the date of its budget based on the fluctuating price of this transparently hostage-taking commodity.

It is time, perhaps, for Canada to start playing the long-game with its natural resources.

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As the fracking world turns stomachs

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To emit or not to emit; that is the question – a reference, of course, not to the the vast amount of shale gas believed to be mercifully trapped in the ground of New Brunswick, but to the hot air issuing unmercifully and daily from Fredericton.

The deceptively simple ban on hydraulic fracturing in this province has become needlessly complicated ever since Brian Gallant sashayed into the premier’s office some months ago.

At the outset of the election campaign last spring, the matter seemed clear enough. Do five things, the surging Grits demanded of the shale gas industry:

Prove that you can make it safe; demonstrate that you won’t wreck roads and sewer systems; consult with First Nations communities before you break ground; ensure that everyone else in your exploration radii agrees with your plans; and adhere to tough, new regulations on your activities. Oh, and by the way, make darn sure that the taxpayers get a nice, juicy piece of the action.

Still, it’s never been clear that development companies want, or are even prepared, to rise to these standards – partly because many measures the provincial government imposes are hopelessly vague. How, for example, does the whole “social license” piece work in a jurisdiction that does not impose the same requirements on any other natural resource industry?

Meanwhile, the Province has just extended the exploration writs granted to SWN Resources Canada (potential fracker extraordinaire) even though that company’s ground-level executives have said – in letters to the Premiers Office and in public – that it would just as soon pull up its tent pegs and move on unless, of course, Premier “Gallanteer” reverses his position on banning the very means it proposes to make its bones in this neck of the woods.

As that’s not going to happen any time soon. Too much is at stake, politically, for a new government that promised to ride herd on industrial carpet-baggers and environmental poachers to recant its most successful election rhetoric.

No, as Energy Minister Donald Arsenault phrased it, quit revealingly, for the Telegraph-Journal earlier this week, “You don’t give an extension to a company who just wants to sit on a valuable piece of land. You still have to be committed to developing that piece of land – that’s usually how the (provincial) evaluation is made.”

On the other hand, he added, “Having said that, there are currently very extraordinary circumstances. . .It’s hard to show a program to develop the land when you’re not allowed to touch it with hydraulic fracturing. You have to be realistic. We know they (SWN) are committed, they would like to continue that work; however, they are not able to because of the conditions we set forth.”

So, then, why “give an extension to a company” who is forced to “sit on a valuable piece of land” only “because of the conditions we set forth?”

Ah, yes. . .so many soap operas in this province to peruse; so little quality downtime to watch.

Now, the official Tory Opposition weighs in with this absurd missive, issued this week: “The Liberal government’s ill-conceived policies have driven a $9-billion company out of New Brunswick, sending with them jobs for New Brunswickers at home and valuable investment dollars. This Liberal government refuses to accept responsibility for this disappointment, and have resorted to concealing the facts from the people of New Brunswick – but we deserve much better.”

We do, indeed.

We deserve clarity, coherence and political collaboration. We deserve solutions to common problems and humour instead of hubris.

To productively start, let’s first cap the gassy emissions from Freddy Beach.

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Just fracking grow up already!

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As former Quebec premier Jean Charest entreats New Brunswickers to step back, take a deep breath and, in an adult fashion, contemplate the shape of things to come in a province increasingly shy of economic options, local legislators are joyriding all the way to the political playground.

SWN Resources Canada’s vice president Jeff Sherrick sent a letter late last year to the premier’s office, advising it that the company was preparing to “suspend drilling plans and re-dedicate resources to projects in other jurisdictions.”

In other words, in the face of a government-enforced moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in the province, it has decided to pick up its toys and go home or, at least, elsewhere.

“Not knowing if or when the moratorium will be lifted makes it difficult for us to dedicate money to a project that may or may not go ahead in a given year,” Sherrick explained in the memo, a copy of which Opposition Tory Leader Bruce Fitch obtained through the right to information act.

In fact, SWN is not above playing its own games. According to a recent Telegraph-Journal story, “The gas company stated its desire to continue exploration in the province. (It) has requested a long-term extension of its licenses to search, which it said (in its letter) would provide ‘the stability needed to effectively plan and lessen the financial risks’.”

So, then, is it staying or going? Only Energy Minister Donald Arsenault, it seems, knows the answer as he alone holds the keys to the playground.

Still, when it comes to a vigorous round to “red rover” – of not, precisely, serious economic development planning – all are welcome.

Here’s Fitch on the subject of moratorium, as reported in the T-J: “The sad reality of the situation is that now, in the sixth month of this government’s mandate, the government members are more confused than ever as to what to do with this gas moratorium. . .They scramble to figure out how they can meet the conditions or excuses that they made up a few months ago while gas supplies dry up and companies pull up stakes and leave the province with their investment dollars and their jobs that would have been created here if the Liberals had not gone forward with their moratorium.”

Here’s Arsenault’s rebuttal: “The Opposition is all over the place. When it comes to shale gas and hydraulic fracturing, we have been very clear for two-and-a-half years. We will impose a moratorium in New Brunswick. Do you know why? It is because we care about what New Brunswickers have said all along. We care because we know that the royalty scheme is not maximizing the benefits for New Brunswick. We also care that the then government did not want to consult with First Nations. It is not only a moral responsibility, but it is also the law.”

Now here’s Charest on the subject at a business gathering in Moncton on Monday: “We want to see development of our natural resources. We want to see it done right, but we also see a lot of projects that are stuck and not moving ahead because we are not encouraging the right debate. Fracking in New Brunswick is an example of that. The challenge for us is to have a fact-based discussion on things like fracking, so that we can make a better decision on whether we want this industry to be part of our economy.”

Yeah, good luck with that. I believe there’s still more mud to sling in the political playground that is New Brunswick.

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The Frick and Frack of shale gas in N.B.

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The absurd barn dance the New Brunswick government and the province’s gas exploration companies are performing would be mildly amusing to witness if it wasn’t so stubbornly frustrating to behold.

The Gallant government has been clear about its conditions for lifting its moratorium on hydraulic fracturing:  A “social licence” must be obtained; reliable research about the practice’s environmental effects must be undertaken; a strategy to limit the impacts on infrastructure must be written; an approach for negotiating with First Nations communities must be devised; and a royalty regime must be developed to spread the wealth equitably.

Fair enough. So, let’s get on with it.

But, no. Industry and Government are still curtseying and do-si-doing while New Brunswick’s economy – and all of its pent-up capacity – waits for this maddening hoofing to finally end.

Now, the Province finds itself in the broadly untenable position of pondering license extensions to established exploration companies, who have signed agreements to frack, only to avoid any legal repercussions that may stem from industry’s desire to sue its institutional arse in court for, in effect, revoking those agreements.

But will Government consider reversing its election promise (a moratorium on fracking), a move that would settle the conundrum once and for all, in return for closer public-private sector collaboration on all outstanding issues associated with shale-gas extraction?

Not on your life.

In fact, Energy Minister Donald Arsenault is adamant that he can dance quite well, even with his feet tied together.

To the Telegraph-Journal he declared the other day, “Despite what the (Tory) opposition is saying, SWN is not ready to run away from New Brunswick. I am not saying that they are in total agreement with a moratorium, of course not. . .But the fact that they requested an extension tells me that they are still interested in New Brunswick.”

On the other hand, he demurred, “I am not obligated to extend it (SWN Resources Canada’s license in New Brunswick). I have the authority to do it; it doesn’t mean that I have to do it.”

That’s what Frick says. What sayeth Frack?

Corridor Resources, the other major player in the provinces, is somewhat more loquacious on than subject than its competitor SWN, which refuses to respond to media interview requests.

Says Corridor CEO Steve Moran: “We have made application with government to. . .extend those leases for all the time the moratorium is in effect.”

What’s more, he says, “We pay them (Government) rental payments for our leases, but we also pay them royalties. We’re still paying them royalties on the producing wells. I don’t see why we should be paying them rental for lands that in essence are stymied.”

Frankly, neither do I.

Nor do I think that any of this even remotely serves the principle of informed consent in a province as evidently concerned about its democratic rights as is New Brunswick – let alone the long-term economic stability that necessarily girds such expectations.

Meanwhile, Moran warns darkly of the day when domestic supplies of natural gas will become scarce, forcing up the price charged to business and residential consumers.

In that eventuality, Arsenault counters, we’ll simply pull in more of the stuff from Pennsylvania where (guess what, boys and girls?) fracking is legal.

Huh?

So it’s okay to import gas, fracked from another jurisdiction at a premium; but it’s not to deploy a similar technology to produce a cheaper supply here at home.

Is it any wonder this province’s economy is on the skids.

Then again, we do love to dance with ourselves – in the dark.

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Balancing the federal budget or bust

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As the we wake up to the nauseating certainty that the Conservative government of Canada finds itself with its shorts down around its ankles, we might properly wonder what all that official, post-Great Recession palaver about economic stewardship and sound fiscal planning actually produced.

Plummeting oil prices – always considered a possible, if not likely, eventuality a year ago by those who actually pay attention to markets – have sent once-mighty prognosticators in high office scurrying like so many scared bunnies into a brier patch (as the oil patch, don’t you know, has become suddenly inhospitable for political animals of every stripe and species).

In fact, Finance Minister Joe Oliver is so shakent, he’s taking the unusual, if not altogether unprecedented, step of delaying the federal budget until “at least” April – all the better, presumably, to gauge the impact on federal coffers of lower dividends oil producers pay to the people of Canada in return for the economic license we have apparently granted to them.

Given that most experts now predict that volatility in the oil and gas sector will remain the new normal for some time (perhaps, as many as three years), it’s hard to cotton what Mr. Oliver’s finance department mavens are divining as they buy themselves a month to chew what’s left of their nails to the nubs.

Really? Why not make it two or even six, for all the good it will do.

The energy roller coaster now makes balancing the federal budget in any meaningful or sustainable way virtually impossible – so dependent on revenues from fossil-fuel production are government coffers; as are, in fact, increasingly broad swathes of the rest of the economy.

In 2013, according to Natural Resources Canada (NRC), the oil and gas sector generated $133 billion in gross domestic product (about 7.5 per cent of the national total) in his country. It employed 190,000 people, or about 1.1 per cent of the working, adult population, even as it accounted for $83 billion, or 21 per cent, of total capital expenditures in Canada.

Again, says an NRC bulletin, “Federal and provincial/territorial (P/T) governments in Canada receive direct revenues from energy industries related to corporate income taxes, indirect taxes (such as sales and payroll taxes), crown royalties (which are the share of the value of oil and gas extracted that is paid to the Crown as the resource

owner) crown land sales, (which are paid to the Crown in order to acquire the resource rights for specific properties.”

Moreover, “the largest share of government revenues is collected from the oil and gas industry, which averaged $23.3 billion over the last five years, including $20.7 billion from upstream oil and gas extraction and its support activities. Between 2008 and 2012, the energy industries’ share of total taxes paid (11.9 per cent) was in line with their share of total operating revenues (13.6 per cent).

So, when the price of oil takes a hit, so do we all in this country – at least, fiscally. That’s almost as immutable a law of nature as gravity or, more appropriately, the handwringing and teeth-gnashing of high-profile politicians determined to keep their promises – fool-hardy though they may be – come what may.

“The Conservative government is warning for the first time that falling oil prices could trigger new spending cuts in order to deliver on a promised balanced budget,” Bill Curry writes in the Globe and Mail this week. “On the heels of the surprise decision to delay the federal budget until at least April, the government is putting Canadians on notice that it is prepared to cut spending further rather than abandon its goal of balancing the books.”

It’s a challenge that Jason Kenney, federal employment minister, insisted in broadcast interviews last weekend could be met with “additional fiscal restraint.”  After all, he said, balancing the budget is a commitment we made to Canadians in the last election.”

It does, however, seem broadly nonsensical – and even amateurish, from a money manager’s perspective – to manufacture more austerity just to be able to show a book entry in black ink, fleeting though it may be.

Canadians want their government’s books in fine balance, yes – but not at the expense of programs that do more good for the economy than does a technical surplus the durability of which ultimately hinges on volatile forces beyond any one pledge-making politician’s ability to control.

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Oh, what a messy slick we spill

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Oil has a nasty way of sticking to everything it touches, including the best-laid plans of men, governments and hired gunslingers in the spin-rooms of the nation.

Not so long ago, black gold was Canada’s economic salvation. It was better than  manufacturing, technological innovation in the non-resource sector, and even financial services at generating long-term jobs and huge dividends for high-flying investors.

Indeed, so went the fairy tale, oil was the last, best hope to power these industries and aspirations and return the country to its always mythological status as the world’s next, big superpower of opportunity.

Oh well. Easy come, easy go – which has become, in New Brunswick, our preferred provincial slogan, beating out such bromides as “Be in this place” and (my personal favorite) “Hell, it could be worse, though we don’t possibly see how”.

Still, Alberta’s blackened, big sky country may want to rip a page from the picture-perfect province’s sloganeering songbook as it begins to send thousands of expat Maritimers back home to their sea-bound coasts.

With oil hovering below $50 a barrel – down more than 100 per cent since mid-October – and no discernible bottom to the price plunge, the West’s formerly gilded streets are about to be lined with foreclosure notices, each prettily packaged in recyclable envelopes, courtesy of your friendly, neighbourhood big, Bay-Street bank.

Oh, how the ironies abound.

To Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, oil meant certain reelection in October. That’s because royalties from this resource enabled their utterly fantastical predictions of surplus, their wholly irresponsible promise to permit income splitting among families that could well afford to pay the tax man that which is properly due to him, and their cynically calculated (and needlessly costly) diversions regarding the Child Tax Credit.

Now, they’ll be lucky to muster enough cash to cover the cost of the laces for the finance minister’s new shoes come budget time some months away.

As it is, they can’t work fast enough to fit themselves for boots of clay.

According to a Globe and Mail report last Thursday, “The Conservative government will not release the federal budget until at least April, a delay meant to give Finance Minister Joe Oliver more time to assess the impact of plunging oil prices on the Canadian economy.”

As Mr. Oliver told a press conference in Ottawa, “Given the current market instability, I will not bring forward our budget earlier than April. We need all the information we can obtain before finalizing our decisions. . .“This new reality poses a great, though not entirely unprecedented challenge. . .It represents the third largest price decline in the last four decades, exceeded only by the 1986 OPEC collapse and the sharp decline and rapid recovery we saw during the Great Recession. . .Given the current volatility, there is no consensus about how low will prices fall and how long they stay there. Nevertheless, every knowledgeable person I have spoken to believes, and history tells us, that prices will eventually move well above (the) current level.”

In fact, though oil’s price may not have yet bottomed, there is, evidently, a point at which the Canadian economy’s ability to compensate for its clear and utter dependence on the stuff simply fails.

Only a week ago, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne all-but bragged about the coming resurgence in her province’s manufacturing sector. Low petroleum prices, she noted, meant a lower valuation of the Canadian dollar against its U.S. counterpart. Since south of the border is where more than $300-billion of this country’s good wind up each and ever year, logically the boon to exporting ought to be commensurately marvelous. Read: Who needs oil?

Well, apparently, we do; and the sticky, messy stuff is not cooperating.

Says former finance department deputy minister Scott Clark, in a separate Globe piece last week, “If the government tries too hard to show a surplus, in other words twists and turns in the wind and does everything to show a surplus, I think you lose political and professional creditability. . .The reality is a lot has changed and if I were the Conservative government, I’d be saying ‘that’s the fact.’ Things have changed and we should just realize that and deal with it.”

Of course, that makes just too much sense for this country’s leadership, almost more enamoured of its own talking points on oil than it is with the sticky stuff, itself – if that’s even possible.

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The economic pendulum swings again

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The grand expanse that is Canada guarantees that one of the iconic realities of our national character remains our ability and willingness, when necessary, to pull up stakes and head for wherever the pastures grow greenest.

Rarely, of course, has that been Atlantic Canada.

Most often – at least since Confederation made honest European invaders of some of us – the Elysian fields of our economy have been located in Ontario, the country’s traditional manufacturing hub. That’s where, as the late, great Stompin’ Tom Connors once famously wrote, “the Maritimers all go.” 

Or, they did.

Over the past decade, or so, the big employment draws have been the tar sands of Alberta and the surrounding support industries of the oil and gas sector in Saskatchewan and British Columbia. That’s where, lately, my friends and former neighbours sojourn – driving trucks, working back-office jobs and otherwise punching gilded time clocks.

Or, again, they did.

Now, the shift – as inevitable as the ebb and flow of an ocean tide begins again, and one of Canada’s leading financial institutions, the Royal Bank, is sounding almost chipper.

“There has been considerable discussion about the negative impact of falling oil

prices on the Canadian economy,” Bank economists Paul Ferley, Nathan Janzen and Gerard Walsh write in a recent monograph. “This has been reinforced by anecdotal reports about oil-producing companies cutting back on investment spending particularly within the oil sands. However, as we have emphasized in earlier commentaries, there are offsetting positive outcomes from lower oil prices.”

The first, and most obvious one, they note, is the concurrent boost to the U.S. economy, on which Canada depends for much of its export business (some $300-billion a year). “A stronger U.S. economy implies a growing market for Canadian exports. This is the case despite the recent expansion of oil production in that economy reflecting greater utilization of shale oil reserves. Though the U.S. oil and gas sector is likely to see reduced investment activity, its share of overall capital spending is relatively small.”

Secondly, falling oil prices depresses the value of the Canadian dollar relative to its American counterpart. Again, that’s good for domestic manufacturers and exporters, whose wares suddenly cost less to American buyers.

“The third key offset,” the economists report, “is that Canadian consumers will also be looking at lower gasoline prices that will provide an attendant boost to consumer spending domestically. It is of note that while business investment is a sizable 13 per cent of nominal GDP (including investment in intellectual property products), consumer spending is a massive 54.3 per cent. Thus, a small rise in consumer spending can go a long way to offsetting a marked drop in investment.”

All of which has Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne fairly salivating. And why not?

For years, that once-mighty, supremely confident, magisterially self-important province, has suffered the indignities that $100-per-barrel oil has wrought on its manufacturing-export economy, including an ignominious slump into have-not status in the federal equalization formula. Now that the price of benchmark West Texas Intermediate oil has settled below $53 a barrel, Ms. Wynne is doing her level best to appear generous.

“Ontario’s economy can be a buffer,” she told the Globe and Mail last week. “We have a diverse economy and it can be a buffer in a time like this, against some of that volatility. I don’t wish for low oil prices and a low dollar for Alberta. But at the same time, we want our manufacturing sector to rebound. So if that (low oil price) helps, then that’s a good thing.”

In reality, though, as long as Canada’s value to the world is predominantly measured by the oil and gas it extracts and the pipelines its builds – which has been the common hymn, soulfully trilled by the western caucus of the reigning Conservative Government in Ottawa – volatility, and all that this implies, is likely to be the national economy’s organizing principle for years, even decades, to come.

Shall we now expect a new wave of pink-slip-bearing, prodigal Maritimers returning to their roots down home, where the pastures are, if not exactly green, a little less brown than they seemed not so long ago?

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Juicing up the conversation about oil

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It may be a necessary evil with a preternatural tendency to warm the atmosphere, but it sure tanks at cocktail parties. Face it, after more than 100 years of reshaping the world in its own oily image, fossil fuel is, fundamentally, a crashing bore.

Almost no conversation about the stuff begins with, “Hey, here’s something I bet you didn’t know about oil and gas. . .” or “A funny thing happened on my way to the refinery the other day. . .”

Even those snippets about petroleum with the greatest potential to inspire mild surprise are rarely discussed in polite company, most likely because we know that, these days, such discussions lead to nowhere good and nothing ennobling.

Of course, that doesn’t stop the spin-meisters of Big Oil from doing their level best to remind consumers of the western world that without them, and the resource they plunder as a matter of quotidian purpose, we’d all come well and truly undone.

“Life without oil? Impossible!,” declares a web page from the corporate site of Wintershall, a subsidiary of the many-tentacled mega-squid from Germany, BASF. “Within our daily lives oil is used almost everywhere: Every year, 18 million tonnes of crude oil are processed into synthetic materials in Germany. Oil within our materials: 40 percent of all textiles contain oil; for functional clothing this may be as much as 100 percent. Oil within our leisure activities: 40 billion liters of oil a year are used to make CDs and DVDs. Oil helps us relax: A single sofa contains 60 liters of oil. Modern life is inconceivable without crude oil. . . the most important natural resource of industrialized nations. The world consumes almost 14 billion liters of oil each day. This affects us all.”

Yada yada. So does oxygen, but you don’t hear me go on about the stuff.

Besides, just because we use oil in, and for, everything, except maybe coffee creamer (and the jury’s still out on that), doesn’t mean we should or even must. I seem to recall a rather successful series of pre-oil civilizations – beginning with ancient Sumerian and ending with early Victorian – that did rather well for themselves without benefit of plastic water bottles and nylon thread.

Still, there might yet be a way to make fossil fuel more interesting and, therefore, less repugnant to the chattering classes.

How many products, for example, that contribute to a cleaner, greener world actually involve oil at some level?

Now that’s a question worthy of any late-night salon.

A link to a page of the Pembina Institute’s website (helpfully provided by a reader last week) begins the quest.

“Only a few tidal energy sites are in operation around the world,” the clean-energy think tank reports. “Larger sites include the White Sea in Russia and the Rance River in France (the largest site in the world). Smaller tidal power plant have been built in Canada, such as the site at Annapolis Royal in Nova Scotia, and several in Norway. Together they have a total capacity of less than 250 MW. However, the potential for tidal energy is immense; potential global tidal power exceeds 450 terawatts, most of it in Asia and North America.”

Meanwhile, according to the Canadian Wind Energy Association’s web site, “wind energy is more cost-competitive than new sources of energy supplied by coal with carbon capture and storage, small hydro or nuclear power. The fuel that turns wind turbine blades is free and the price of electricity it produces is set for the entire life of the wind farm. Long-term cost certainty of wind farms have a stabilizing effect on electricity rates, providing important protection for consumers. Unlike other energy supply alternatives, the cost of building wind energy continues to decline, with dramatic drops over the past three years. Wind projects have very short construction periods and can be deployed quickly with many benefits delivered to local communities.”

What does any of this have to do with fossil fuel?

It is as Wintershall claims: Oil’s in just about everything, including the plastic components that comprise tidal generating arrays and wind turbines.

Now, if we could deploy our marvelous primate minds to the front lines of innovation for a change, and determine how best to limit fossil fuel’s uses solely to meritorious ends, we might actually start a conversation worth having.

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Oh, a-fracking we will not go. . .

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You have to hand it to him. If nothing else, New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant is a man of his word.

He galloped into office with a promise that, he believed, resonated with most voters: No more fracking, of any kind, until proof emerges that the process can be rendered safe and harmless to the environment (by which standard, we might all be wise to follow our children west to Alberta, where fantasies do, indeed, come true).

Then, a week before Christmas, he brought down the hammer.

“We have been clear from Day One that we will impose a moratorium until risks to the environment, health and water are understood,” Mr. Gallant told reporters in Fredericton, after he announced new amendments to the province’s oil and natural gas act that prohibit both water and propane-based fracking in the search for commercially exploitable shale gas.

The premier also made it clear that companies may continue to explore for resources. It’s just that they can no longer frack in their efforts to assess the potential of some 77-trillion cubic feet of onshore shale gas that is estimated to lie beneath the surface – which is a little like telling someone that he may own a car, just not the engine.

Still, Mr. Gallant allowed, “We’ll certainly always listen to businesses that may have concerns and try to mitigate some of the impacts if they (believe) them to be negative on their operations.”

Not surprisingly, the CEO of Corridor Resources had a few choice words to share. “We have always maintained that a moratorium is not necessary for an industry that has operated responsibly and safely in this province,” Steve Moran told the Saint John Telegraph-Journal on December 18. “Here is an industry that wants to create more jobs and they just basically shut it down. . .We expect that the government of New Brunswick should want to fully understand the potential rewards of allowing the industry to proceed, while ensuring the risks are manageable and acceptable.”

What’s more, he said, “The only certainty is that nobody will ever know the economic potential, should hydraulic fracturing no longer be permitted. To not allow the work to continue, would amount to a refusal by the government of New Brunswick to ask the question  of what the reward of pushing this resource might be. We would consider that a wasted opportunity for the people of New Brunswick.”

And, not incidentally, for Corridor, itself, which has over the past several years invested upwards of $500 million on the industry in this province.

Still, it’s not as if Mr. Gallant had left many options for himself. Breaking so fundamental a campaign promise in these early days of his term might have been politically suicidal (though, a strategist might argue that this is precisely when one wants throw one’s pledges under the bus; the public’s memory grows mighty short when economic development flowers from a broken word or two).

Mr. Gallant’s predecessor, Tory Premier David Alward faced a similar Faustian decision: raise the provincial portion of the HST, as every mainstream economist advised, or keep his campaign promise to maintain the status quo (note, of course, how well that worked out for him in the end).

Politics aside, it’s not clear, in any of this, what will constitute “safe” and environmentally benign fracking procedures. According to the premier, “Any decision on hydraulic fracturing will be based on peer-reviewed scientific evidence and follow recommendation of the Chief Medical Officer of Health.”

If the approach now involves reviewing the evidence of natural degradation from fracking in jurisdictions other than New Brunswick, how relevant is one state’s or province’s experiences to our own?

According to a New York Times investigation, published last month, in North Dakota “as the boom (in shale gas) really exploded, the number of reported spills, leaks, fires and blowouts has soared with an increase in spillage that outpaces the increase in oil production,” partly because “forgiveness remains embedded in the (state’s) Industrial Commission’s approach to an industry that has given North Dakota the fastest-growing economy and lowest jobless rate in the country.”

Four our part, the tolerances of New Brunswick’s own regulatory regime are not something we’re likely to test any time soon.

On that, we have Mr. Gallant’s word; and, so far, his word is good.

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