Most people would doubtless agree that the Lower Churchill Project — i.e. Muskrat Falls — could only proceed because of offshore oil income, secured by the 1985 Atlantic Accord initiative of the Peckford administration.
Since then, both successor (and
fortunate) Williams and Dunderdale administrations have maintained that developing Muskrat Falls is the best way (“least costly”) to utilize that hard-fought-for largesse — better than developing electricity generation in some way on the island of Newfoundland itself.
However, quite apart from those two possibilities, it is truly remarkable that different questions have never publicly been posed: is additional electricity production the best (and only) way to make use of this once-and-forever offshore oil bonanza? Should not other possibilities also be considered?
The following developments might serve the future economic welfare of the province more effectively.
• The major thrust for economic progress in the province has always been centred on the export market (fish, paper, minerals mainly, and recently oil). Present authorities express a like view for Labrador power, whether from the Upper or Lower Churchill River. Internal provincial marketing receives much less emphasis in governmental pronouncements and advocations.
• It is well recognized in most jurisdictions that whilst export trade obviously should be pushed, it is the domestic market that is most valuable in terms of general economic advancement. For example, 70 per cent of the U.S. economy is internally based; in China, increased domestic consumption is seen as a greatest need, no matter what the large stimulus from exports; and so on.
• In this regard, Newfoundland and Labrador exhibits five main areas
of economic activity (and population) — St. John’s metropolitan area, Gander/Grand Falls-Windsor, Corner Brook/Stephenville, Happy Valley- Goose Bay, and Labrador City/Wabush. In a very real sense, each area is largely self-contained and essentially separate and independent of the others — in each, a rise or fall of the local economy is little reflected elsewhere in a meaningful way.
• The cause for this unfortunate state of affairs seems obvious. An all-important blinding influence is ill-developed — in one instance, entirely absent — easy and convenient surface interconnections, particularly modern roads. Inter-area trade is inhibited, capability to interact being an essential element in all commerce. Main areas on the island had belatedly been inter-connected, as have the two Labrador areas. The two road-systems themselves remain separate and distinct.
The existing paved roads hardly constitute a means for easy commerce, for two main reasons — first, rather than designed purposefully as throughways between main centres, existing links in reality are mere “join-ups” between intervening smaller communities, used for local as well as through traffic; and second, the routes themselves are not “immediate” but of necessity lead more-or-less circuitously from one main centre to the next.
Even the Trans-Canada Highway bears little resemblance to Germany’s autobahns, Italy’s autostradas, U.S. turnpikes, or even the U.K.’s and France’s national routes. Travel is lengthy and tiring.
If the provincial economy is to reach its future potential, the following minimal transportation additions are needed in order to permit each area of local economic activity augment the pace in and between each other:
• relative straight-line, multi-lane routes from main area to main area;
• bypasses at each main area;
• a traffic tunnel at the Straits of Belle Isle;
• communications/electrical inter-tie positioned along the inter-connected Labrador-island route.
The possibility of appropriate future high-speed railway lines should receive secondary consideration — now seen as essential infrastructure in advanced states.
At the present time, no planning seems to have been done to detail best methodology and the costs of these absolutely essential elements of sustained economic growth in the province. This is an immediate requirement. I suggest that expenditures for these purposes should have a much higher priority than Nalcor’s proposed Lower Churchill project.
Dr. J.F. Collins is a former Progressive Conservative finance minister. He writes from St. John’s.