There must be something about having oil money spilling out of their pockets that makes governments pessimistic and cheap, and unable to let their citizenry enjoy the benefits of good economic times. Perhaps Newfoundlanders (and Labradorians) — too recently accustomed to living in non-
insulated houses — cannot yet fathom their newfound comfort, and so still accept the provincial government’s pronouncements that, no, you can’t have this and you can’t have that.
After all, the oil will soon run out and we’ll all return to attempting to keep out the cold by papering our walls with old copies of The Telegram.
Alberta politicians adopted a similar tactic a generation ago. Alberta’s oil boom had barely toddled to its feet when the Western world’s energy complacency was knocked over by the “oil crisis” of 1973.
Suddenly and dramatically, everybody realized the oil would soon run out, causing a regression of modern civilization, possibly to the point of forcing suburban commuters to fetch supper via bow and arrow.
(When the hysteria died down several years later, it became clear the 1973 “oil crisis” had always been about money, not supply — members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) simply demanded, quite reasonably, a higher price per barrel.)
The Alberta government, suffocating under a stack of petro dollars, established the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund in 1976 to set aside some of the day’s oil wealth for “future generations.” (As of September 2011, the Heritage Fund contained $14.7 billion.)
Newfoundlanders/Labradorians might recognize the “future generations” refrain. Finance Minister Tom Marshall hauled it out last week in announcing that the province’s $700-million windfall in unexpected offshore oil revenue would be put — whole hog — toward the province’s debt.
At some point, though, the strategy of ignoring today’s needs in favour of the supposed requirements of “future generations” can backfire.
Some years ago, a huge controversy erupted when the Alberta government demolished Calgary’s General Hospital and didn’t bother to replace it. Naturally, people angrily wondered why a wealthy city like Calgary had to make do with one less hospital, while the government had billions in the bank. Residents of St. John’s might notice a similarity every time they pass the open field on LeMarchant Road where the Grace Hospital used to be.
Albertans also demanded, some years ago, that their flush provincial government provide their children with full-day kindergarten.
Oil-producing jurisdictions seem to face the same issues. The need for full-day kindergarten has also been raised in Newfoundland. But a report this week about early childhood education ranked this province last among the provinces in meeting those needs. Not a cent of Marshall’s $700 million will be put toward improving that atrocious ranking.
Sure, pay down the debt. We’re not Greece, after all. But pay attention to today’s needs, too.
Strictly speaking, someday the oil will indeed run out. Politically speaking, that fact is open to massive and irresponsible manipulation. Albertans were first warned almost 40 years ago, but they’re still pumping and aren’t slowing down, Robert Redford’s opinions notwithstanding.
Rather than succumb to Marshall’s propaganda, take a look at the report released this week by the National Energy Board (NEB), “Canada’s Energy Future: Energy Supply and Demand Projections to 2035.”
According to the NEB, Newfoundland’s offshore oil reserves amount to 2.1 billion barrels. So far, 1.2 billion barrels have been pumped out. However, the NEB estimates the “ultimate potential” of Newfoundland’s offshore at 4.7 billion barrels, and the “remaining ultimate potential” at 3.5 billion barrels. The NEB estimates the price of oil to be $80-$160 per barrel until 2035.
In 10 words or less, explain why Newfoundland can’t afford full-day kindergarten.
Brian Jones is a desk editor at The Telegram. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.