Tag Archives: potash

Dear potash, you may now kiss the bride


Until recently, Potash and shale gas in New Brunswick have gone together like a horse and carriage if not, precisely, love and marriage.

But are we now witnessing from the sidelines of a new provincial Jobs Board – more concerned with marrying this region’s disparate economic opportunities than allowing their pervasive separations to widen – the opening gambit of some type of betrothal in the natural resources sector?

Politically, Liberal Premier Brian Gallant’s stern insistence on slapping a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing was a smart move. His Tory predecessors had utterly bungled the file with the predictable result of having neutralized any chance of engendering informed debate, let alone winning hearts and minds on either side of the controversial issue.

Those opposed to the practice of exploding rock deep beneath the ground to extract natural gas, potentially poisoning drinking water, relied on Internet research (some compelling good, some stunningly bad) to reinforce their intractability.

Those who supported the practice, believing that it could be safe as long as regulations in this province were tougher and more reliable than any found in the developed world, remained bewildered by the road blocks and burning police cruisers at Rexton, N.B., in the summer and fall of 2013.

And, as usual in these sort of contretemps, never the twain would meet.

Economically, though, Mr. Gallant’s “wait-and-see” policy regarding shale gas development (Is it benign? Can a social license be negotiated with affected communities? What’s the long-term, dollars-and-cents impact on the province’s finances?) is running down the clock.

The debt clock, that is: hundreds-of-millions of dollars in annual deficits; a $12-billion long-term debt that no degree of public-sector austerity will settle without robust, private-sector economic growth.

So, it comes as no surprise that the Grit government is now talking boldly about vastly expanding potash mining in the province.

In an exclusive for Brunswick News Inc., Adam Huras reports this week that the Province “will issue a request for proposals. . .to explore a massive stretch of land in southern New Brunswick it believes could be home to the province’s next potash mine.”

The area in question reportedly incorporates more than 24,000 hectares (240 million square meters) of land less than an hour’s drive north of Saint John.

Question: What do potash mining operations here use to power their facilities? Answer: hydraulically fracked shale gas.

Another question: Why? Another answer: Because it’s reliable, plentiful and, frankly, cheaper than any alternative.

Now, when a provincial government raises the possibility of opening up its public pocketbook to help finance a major expansion of a demonstrably successful resource industry in order to create good, sustainable, long-term jobs, the long bet appreciates that said government must also understand the importance of the fuel supply said resource industry deploys to justify embroidering its business plan.

It also stands to reason that Mr. Gallant’s cabinet and Jobs Board recognize that any move, on government’s part, to so convincingly enlarge a sector that depends on shale gas will goose opinion about the energy supply (for and against) in the public square, regardless of any moratorium.

Inevitably, that means a conversation – one that ended, unproductively, when the Grit team took office last fall.

Naturally, the talking points from the premier’s office, over the next few days, will tow the party line. No, we haven’t changed our minds, they will say. Yes, we believe there exist legitimate questions about the safety of hydraulic fracturing. Of course, until we know the truth, we will not act precipitously.

Still, that’s what every marriage broker says when he or she is conducting their due diligence.

Will the groom behave honorably? Will the bride comport herself in the best interests of her extended family and community?

How deliciously ironic that those who signed the first divorce papers might now officiate at the new wedding?

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The stiff upper lip to success


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.

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