Nfld. & Labrador·Weekend Briefing

Oil prices have dropped like a boulder, and that's got to be a migraine at Confederation Building

Here's why Tom Osborne's nerves may be on edge these days.

Finance Minister Tom Osborne speaks to reporters at Confederation Building during November's fiscal update. (CBC)

The price of oil at Christmas must have felt like one big lump of coal for Finance Minister Tom Osborne. 

Brent crude — the type of oil the Newfoundland and Labrador government tracks for its budget, and which the local oilpatch follows closely — hit a 52-week low of just under $50 US around the time that Santa was firing up the sleigh. 

The price has rebounded a little since, but it came after a slide that was already underway when Osborne stepped forward in early November for a fiscal update that seemed to have a theme of "whew, almost there." 

Osborne credited a significant bump in Brent for softening what had been a worse fiscal position. 

A quick recap: the province started the fiscal year with a projected deficit of $683 million. By November, that number was down to $547 million. 

No one should sneeze at $136 million, especially a finance minister faced with the difficult task of keeping a budget in line — while his cabinet colleagues are keeping their eye on re-election prospects at the end of this year. 

A big part of the province's then-improving position: a rise in oil prices.

Indeed, while Osborne and his staff were crafting the mid-year fiscal update in late October, Brent hit a year-to-date high of $86 US. 

Brent wound up on the naughty list 

But, oh, what two months can do. 

Brent, like other oil commodities including the broadly watched West Texas Intermediate, took it in the gut in the end of the year, losing a whopping $36 a barrel in less than 10 weeks. 

The Christmas marking was the lowest Brent had been since the summer of 2017. 

Just look at this chart to see how Brent climbed in the first 10 months of the year — and then how it fell rapidly in just two months. 

Motorists surely didn't grumble in the late fall when gas prices followed the oil market, and dropped week after week after week. 

But taxpayers should pay heed to what's been going on. Offshore royalties alone account for almost $975 million — that's more than what the province earns from gasoline, tobacco, liquor and corporations combined

Maybe the price of Brent will climb back by the end of the fiscal year in March to make a difference. 

Then again, maybe it won't. 

The oldest city? Oh, please 

St. John's likes to bill itself as the oldest city in North American. Historians beg to differ. (Submitted by Wayne Myles)

Earlier this week, CBC spoke with historian Jeff Webb, who — rightly — takes issue with the Newfoundland and Labrador tourist department's use of the phrase "the oldest city" to describe St. John's and its place in North America. 

In short, Webb said, it's simply not true

Maybe you're not persuaded by Webb. Maybe you're one of those people who point to the popular history book The Oldest City, penned decades ago by the late Paul O'Neill. 

Well, to rebut that, I present an expert witness — and it's none other than Paul O'Neill himself. 

I wrote about this very subject years ago, and O'Neill (one of the kindest people I've ever met, and quite funny, too) wrote to me in 1998 with confirmation that, yes, indeed Virginia, St. John's is not the oldest city on the continent. It's not even close. 

O'Neill, who wanted to name his book A City on a Hill, said the publisher's decision to go with a factually incorrect title "often makes me cringe." 

Here's Paul O'Neill's letter, in his own words. 

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Note his sentence: "The best we can claim for St. John's is that it is possibly 'the oldest place occupied by (as opposed to settled by) Europeans north of Spanish America.'" 

Don't expect to see that as an advertising tagline any time soon! 

12 things you need to read today

Before you get on with the rest of the day, check out some stories we've brought to you over the last little while. 

Remember those little critters that came in boxes of Red Rose tea? Of course you do

We imagine there's a higher chance that Afroman can place Corner Brook on a map. 

"VLTs were No. 1 with a bullet in terms of how destructive and addictive they are," says someone who ought to know. 

Martin Jones and Bernice Hillier co-host CBC Newfoundland Morning. (Ritchie Perez)

Martin Jones and Bernice Hillier, who together host CBC Radio's Newfoundland Morning, both wrote lovely features that we published this week. Bernice looked outside, at how you can find gym-level fitness in the great outdoors, while Martin looked inside, and wrote about what motivated him to change his life completely at 40. 

Star architect Alison McNeil has come a long way since she made childhood drawings in Trepassey. 

Don't use a Sharpie as a beauty product. 

The student athlete who's already an expert in time management. 

When an ambulance gets stuck on the Trans-Canada, something's not working. 

We didn't plan a series or anything, but we recently ran three different — and wonderful — stories about retired folks. There's Stan Collins, who tweets the most beautiful photos of Gros Morne National Park. There's Alan Kwan, a retired surgeon who has brought his intricate fingerwork to making stunning rugs based on famous paintings and local scenes. And then there's Maureen Sullivan, who retired from a pharmacy in downtown St. John's — and was treated to a surprise Manhattan vacation as a thank you from her appreciative boss. 

We all should be so lucky! 

Puzzle time!

Before 2018 races too far into the distance, here's an opportunity to revisit the headlines of the year … including some of the picky little details. 

Last chance for a bit of mummering

Being the kind of guy who recognizes Old Christmas Day (it's my dad's birthday, and it's also Ukrainian Christmas Eve, which is an occasion my wife's family marks), I'm all in for mummering throughout the 12 days of Christmas. Colleen Denty shared the above photo from Trinity — a community known for houses as colourful as anything you'll see during the janneying season. 

You can see the photo, and plenty of other good things, in our latest audience gallery. We're always delighted to see photos from across Newfoundland and Labrador. To get involved, send your photo to nlphotos@cbc.ca, with your name and some details about the photo. No promises, but we like to post as many as we can. 

That's it for now. Enjoy your weekend. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.

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