You are the premier of New Brunswick, a have-not province by Canadian standards.
You have a chronic unemployment rate above 10 per cent, much higher than the Canadian average. You have thousands of citizens on part-time work supplemented by employment insurance, a pattern deeply woven into the psychology, sociology and economics of some parts of the province. You have young people leaving for Alberta, Ontario and elsewhere.
Last week, your finance minister delivered some discouraging news. The budget deficit would be almost $100-million more than forecast because revenues were lower and pension costs were higher. The revenue shortfall of $270-million outstripped your government’s sustained and systematic attempt to keep spending growth to less than 1 per cent. Health care is being flat-lined: no increase.
One step forward, two steps back. And not for the first time. New Brunswick governments have tried a lower corporate tax rate, regional investment sweeteners and other measures to create jobs, stimulate economic activity and pull up a province that raises $4.8-billion from its own revenue sources but depends on $1.6-billion from Ottawa via equalization.
What’s a premier to do? a string of Liberals and Conservatives have asked themselves. There’s got to be at least some light at the end of a long tunnel.
All of a sudden, the North American energy picture changes. Maybe, perhaps, something good could happen for New Brunswick as a result, creating some additional employment and more revenue for the provincial coffers.
No responsible New Brunswick premier – not the current one, Conservative David Alward, or any likely successor, such as Brian Gallant, the 31-year-old leader of the Liberals – is going to turn his back on the opportunities raised by the new energy picture.
One part of that picture starts in Alberta, whose bitumen oil hasn’t yet found a route through British Columbia or the United States to foreign markets. But if an all-Canadian pipeline could be extended to Saint John, with its deep-water port, it would provide jobs, revenue and the start, perhaps, of something like an energy hub.
Then there’s shale gas, which violently flared its way onto front pages in recent days when the RCMP tried to enforce a court injunction against an illegal blockade near the Elsipogtog reserve. Nobody knows how much shale gas there is in New Brunswick, or whether it would make sense to develop it. A host of unanswered questions remain about quantity, markets and, crucially, the environmental impact of fracking.
Pennsylvania and upper Midwestern U.S. states have given the green light to fracking shale gas; New York and Quebec have given the red light. No reasoned answer can be given in New Brunswick until much more is known, starting with how much shale gas there is and where.
Which brings us to why geologic testing is a responsible first step that any government would undertake before making the larger and more difficult questions about exploiting shale gas. The province has to know what it has, where it is and how to get at it, while assessing the environmental risks and whether a market exists for the gas, either by pipeline to the United States or in liquefied form to elsewhere from Saint John.
The Elsipogtog First Nation has very high welfare and unemployment rates. Some of its leaders have been quoted as saying they never want shale gas exploited; others complain they have not been adequately consulted about land over which they have claimed rights.
Claiming to have land rights isn’t the same as having them in law – except that in aboriginal politics, it increasingly does. Interpreting Supreme Court rulings in the most stretched way possible, aboriginals insist they should be consulted up to the point of veto over any land they claim.
If First Nations leaders want to be consulted over possible jobs or revenue-sharing, that would be one thing. If the leaders don’t want shale gas ever, they should say so, rather than using the consultation argument as a cover.
If they don’t want to participate in development, then if it happens, it will happen somewhere else. Others will get all the benefit, and the Elsipogtog will carry on as before, very happy, perhaps, and very poor.