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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Envisioning the future

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball and Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady speak to reporters in St. John’s Friday after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against reopening the 1969 Churchill Falls power contract with Quebec.
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball and Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady. — Telegram file photo

OK, this has been bothering me for a while.

I’ve tried to make sense of it. Tried to figure out where it comes from, and just what it’s supposed to really mean.

Listened, while the Dwight Ball Liberals rolled out new variants of the same theme.

And what I think is that some very definite economic numbers are just being pulled, science-fiction-like, out of a pre-election hat: it’s what I’m calling, “2030 — An Economic Oddity.”

What I’m referring to is the province’s stagey, forward-looking statements about its plan for the Newfoundland and Labrador economy.

Using the year 2030 as a benchmark, the provincial government has been unveiling industry plans promising big gains.

Like Advance 2030. In that plan for the province’s oil industry, the provincial government “envisions” 100 new exploration wells, commercial natural gas productions, 650,000 barrels of oil being produced every single day and thousands of new oilfield jobs.

It’s an interesting goal, but the tools the government has to actually deliver on its “envisionment” are something else again. After all, the Ball government isn’t mobilizing oil rigs and doing the drilling itself. The real drivers for oil production, of course, are the cost of production, the demand, the market price available for the oil and gas and currency fluctuations. Oh, and private and publicly held companies that report to their shareholders, not to the provincial government.

But it’s not only the oilfield Advance 2030 that feels more like hopes and dreams than any kind of commitment.

Take the province’s Mining the Future 2030; oh look, there’s 2030 again, safely far enough in the future that you can always claim to be on “The Way Forward” without actually having to deliver something. In the mining document, the government “envisions” — yes, officials even use that word again — five new mines in the province by 2030, along with twice as much exploration work as is now being done. But why five new mines? Why not 10? Why a 100 per cent increase in exploration numbers? Why not 250 per cent?

I mean, the numbers are goals, but they read like they’re essentially drawn out of thin air. It’s not like the government is saying, “We have proponents with eight mines in the predevelopment stage and we’re reasonably sure that five of those will proceed.” No, it’s “we’ll have five new mines.”

I can envision a comfortable, long, happy life as a multi-millionaire, though I can reasonably tell you it’s unlike to happen by 2030 — or ever, for that matter.

The problem with having a government promising specific growth in the commodity business is that so few of the levers are actually in a government’s hands.

Sure, the province can make things like the permitting and regulation of mines easier, faster and cheaper — but if, as the government is also promising, you commit to “safe and environmentally responsible exploration and development,” there are limits to how attractive you can make the province.

Right now, the five mines of “Mining the Future 2030” are expected to result from an action plan with a lot of sentences that sound like this: “A fully integrated, multiyear implementation plan with internal and external partners, timelines and transparent action item tracking will be developed by June 2019.” If you were mining words, well, you’re getting somewhere with all that verbiage. Otherwise, you’re just planning to make a plan.

And if “envisioning” is your benchmark, you can come up with all sorts of things. After all, the word’s dictionary meaning is to “imagine as a future possibility.” Not even imagine as a future probability — certainly not “commit to.”

I can envision a comfortable, long, happy life as a multi-millionaire, though I can reasonably tell you it’s unlike to happen by 2030 — or ever, for that matter.

This platform is even more hocus-pocus than the preceding Tory government’s “Energy Warehouse” plan, which — need I remind you — the province’s electorate happily voted for, thereby committing us and our children to the fun and frolic of Muskrat Falls.

Five new mines and 100 exploratory wells, envisioned so far from now that the politicians making those heady commitments will all be safely retired on full pension before the due date even comes.

I’d say take it all with 2,030 grains of salt. And don’t stay up late waiting for it.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.

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