New Brunswick Votes·Opinion

Environment, economic development policies must be balanced

David McLaughlin, the former CEO of the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, argues how New Brunswick politicians must thread the needle on economic and environmental policy.

New Brunswick has never succeeded in becoming pro-sustainable development, David McLaughlin argues

David McLaughlin, the former president of the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, said voters, communities and interest groups are quick to weigh in on natural resource development proposals. (Canadian Press)

No issue is guaranteed to generate as much controversy today as the environment and natural resource development.

From shale gas to pipelines, voters, communities and interest groups are weighing in on one side or the other.

Everything from contaminated water to climate-changing carbon emissions gets thrown in the mix in a bid to stop or scale back development, while jobs and growth are proffered to promote it.

New Brunswick is proving no stranger to this divide. Good, because it needs to confront this phenomenon directly, once and for all.

The Sept. 22 election is offering every indication of being decisive for New Brunswick in setting a pro- or anti-development path.

A province with an important natural resource economy is literally on the cusp of making critical choices on whether it will develop its lucrative resource heritage and leverage its strategic geographic place further, or not. If elections matter because they are about choices, this one matters more than most.

What’s behind this energy push and how can New Brunswick avoid the deep polarization that attends other energy development projects?

3 reasons to push natural resource development

There are three good reasons to promote energy and resource development in New Brunswick.

New Brunswick is on the cusp of making critical choices on whether to pursue a natural resource economy, according to McLaughlin. (CBC)
First, energy-driven economies are growing economies. According to the Conference Board of Canada, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland and Labrador are the top-performing provincial economies in Canada.

“The benefits of resource exports, particularly energy, have led to rising incomes in these provinces and higher consumer spending," the report said.

New Brunswick, by contrast, is mired at the back. This is no one-government phenomenon. It is the result of a weak home-grown economic base.

Second, provincial finances are better under energy economies. It will be 11 years from when New Brunswick last enjoyed a surplus to when it has one again in 2018. In that same period, Alberta will have had five, Saskatchewan eight and Newfoundland and Labrador will have had six.

Third, job growth and employment is clearly also better under energy economies. The two-lowest unemployment rates today are in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Meanwhile, employment grew by over 19,000 people from 2009-12 in Newfoundland and Labrador, the only Atlantic province to register any growth during that period. 

All the evidence is clear: developed energy economies lead to more jobs, higher incomes, and better provincial finances.

Environmental impacts

The flip side is environmental impacts. Real or imagined, these have become the lightning rod for community and political dissent rallying environmentalists, First Nations, foreign lobby groups and just plain local folks in opposition.

The potential for a shale gas industry in New Brunswick has been extremely controversial. (CBC)
Are they right to be worried? Yes and no.

Long gone are the days when resource projects moved ahead without environmental impact assessments or some form of public interest review.

No regulation is a thing of the past. All governments and parties agree on this.

But two other things have changed: first, people are unwilling to simply accept assurances from any organization — corporate or public — that risks are manageable; and second, the environmental debate has gone global with local projects being assessed against international impacts such as carbon emissions and climate change well beyond New Brunswick’s small boundaries.

Nicely but ambiguously wrapped up in the term ‘social licence,’ these two concerns have effectively become a flashing red light to resource development.

When politicians, people, or communities cite social licence, they too often really mean "no."

No regulation is quite good enough; no study is quite adequate; no review is quite sufficient. That is an impossibly tough hurdle to overcome if the province is going to take advantage of its natural resources opportunity.

How to fix this?

Go back to first principles. Sustainable development is not a choice between the environment and the economy; it is both together.

It is a false choice to place one over the other. You have to find a way to do both. The starting point for New Brunswick should not be, “No, until I am satisfied.” It should be “Yes, here’s a way to satisfy.”

This is not nuance. This is a different and positive frame that cuts through the negativity and seeks to reconcile the competing views as a matter of policy.

Make no mistake about it: how New Brunswick reconciles the environment versus economy debate will have a lot to do with its future prosperity.- David McLaughlin

Engaging citizens and communities is part of the process. Make them part of the formal oversight. Send out information then send out more information.

Be relentless in demonstrating concern for environmental impacts while showing how you are addressing them.

True sustainable development recognizes that development has to take place while addressing environmental concerns. Moratoriums, by contrast, are lazy, insincere responses not in keeping with what sustainable development really means.

New Brunswick has not had strong economic growth because it has become radically pro-environment; it has not had it because it has not yet succeeded in becoming pro-sustainable development.

An environmentally-based argument that stops development altogether without considering mitigating measures will short-change opportunity in this province like nothing else.

This may seem controversial but every successful energy economy has figured out how to thread that needle. There is no reason New Brunswick cannot do the same.

Make no mistake about it: how New Brunswick reconciles the environment versus economy debate will have a lot to do with its future prosperity.

That’s a pretty good reason to hold an election. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David McLaughlin

Policy analyst

David McLaughlin is the former president and chief executive officer of the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy. McLaughlin also served as a deputy minister in the New Brunswick government. He was also a chief of staff to former federal finance minister Jim Flaherty and former premier Bernard Lord.

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