Broadcast 8.15 a.m. 17 July 2002

CBC Radio “Commentary”

By Brian Lee Crowley

It all sounds so reasonable.

New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord wants the National Energy Board to reserve any new discoveries of offshore natural gas for Canadians. Exports to the US, the gas’s chief market, should only be allowed “after Canadian needs have been assessed and met.” After all, the Premier says, there are consumers in northern New Brunswick and eastern Quebec, who do not have access to gas today, and who, according to him, are being deprived of economic development as a result. And it’s all because those oil companies refuse to sell enough gas to Canadians

But alas, Premier Lord, it just ain’t so.

Gas companies have already made substantial supplies available locally, and would happily sell more. But natural gas is no development panacea for which consumers are panting. Southern New Brunswick became one of the first places in the Maritimes where businesses and homeowners could buy natural gas. But the local gas distributor is tearing his hair out because so few people have signed up. They’d rather stick to oil, electricity, propane and wood, that can be cheaper than gas, and don’t require costly new equipment.

But of course, in Bernard Lord’s world, all this would change if New Brunswick could engineer an artificially low price for gas. Turn off the US taps until Canadian demand is satisfied and you create a bubble, gas in volumes too large for the local market, but that cannot be moved elsewhere. The local price would fall – for a while. Until, that is, gas producers pulled out of a place where the rules of the game were so capricious and could be changed so radically after the game had started.

Premier Lord forgets that the future of the offshore, and the spin-offs it generates around the Maritimes, depends not on gas already discovered, but on burgeoning exploration and development. Instead, New Brunswick is signalling to potential investors in the offshore to stay away or they will become hostage to the whims of politicians trying to curry favour with voters.

Twenty years ago Ottawa threw out its National Energy Policy that had substituted the judgements of politicians and bureaucrats for those of markets and consumers. The results of the old policy had been disastrous in terms of driving out energy investment and expertise, while the new one has ushered in an era of investment, steady supply and competitive prices. The National Energy Board should turn down Premier Lord’s request for an east coast version of the old failed policy. Cheap nationalism is no basis for the sustainable gas-based economic growth which is this region’s greatest opportunity in a generation.

For Commentary, I’m Brian Lee Crowley in Halifax