Canada’s resource tide is in – will it miss the boat?

There is a tide in the affairs of development projects, as Shakespeare might have said, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries


To modernize the bard’s words, Canada is living through a time when the perishable nature of opportunity was never more obvious. Canada’s natural resource bounty holds great promise for wealth and job creation, but the opportunities for specific projects are extremely dependent on rapidly shifting circumstances.

For example, Japan is closing down much of its nuclear power industry. That opens a window for the suppliers of natural gas who can reliably get that gas to Japan in time to take nuclear’s place. In this race there will be winners and losers. For the laggards, the opportunity will be gone for a very long time. The British Columbia government, which has ambitions to foster a major natural gas export industry, is nervously watching the clock.

Likewise, Russia’s Mafia-inspired behaviour vis-à-vis countries unwise enough to become dependent on their natural gas has created a post-Crimea rush to diversify Europe’s energy supplies. Algeria, Qatar, Australia, Indonesia and Poland (via fracking) are just a few of the energy-rich countries striving to fill that void. Those at the back of the queue will dine on the crumbs.

It is opportunity’s evanescence that we Canadians too often ignore at our peril, thinking that we have world enough and time to hear every voice, weigh every objection and consider every alternative to pipelines, port construction and mine developments. Surely the rest of the world will wait while we nice, polite, considerate Canadians wring our hands and dither. Alas not.

Far be it from me to suggest that we shouldn’t develop our resources in a responsible and informed way. We should set the highest standards. We just cannot dawdle while we are about it, especially considering that it isn’t only the approval process that takes time, but also the commissioning and construction, where delays and cost overruns are de rigueur and Canada’s reputation is not strong.

What many people do not realize is that these delays harm many of our most vulnerable. Consider that natural resources often represent one of the few genuine economic opportunities for aboriginal people in remote communities.

Recall the 1970s proposal to build a Mackenzie Valley pipeline (MVP) to bring Northwest Territories gas to southern markets.

In the face of the controversy the project generated, including from newly organized and politically aware indigenous people, Ottawa appointed Thomas Berger, a judge, former BC NDP leader and defender of aboriginal rights, to head a royal commission on the pipeline.

Mr. Berger recommended the MVP be postponed until aboriginal people were ready for development. That recommendation, plus the changing economics of the project and Ottawa’s National Energy Policy, seemed to put the final nail in the pipeline’s coffin. The opportunity perished.

Today, aboriginal people themselves are trying to revive the MVP. Whether the economics will justify such a project any time in the near future (and the shale gas revolution seems to make it unlikely, another changing circumstance) is less important than what the project reveals about the evolution of aboriginal attitudes.

As Fred Carmichael, chairman of the Aboriginal Pipeline Group (APG), says, “This time, northern aboriginal people are at the planning table. In a sense, we are now wearing two hats. One hat we wear identifies our traditional role as guardians and stewards of the land. The other hat represents our emerging role as business opportunity developers.” APG is a business created and owned by aboriginal groups in the Northwest Territories, and has secured a right to own one-third of the proposed pipeline.

The new proposal triggered the usual massive governmental environmental and regulatory assessment that immediately bogged it down, to the fury of most northerners, including aboriginal people. Unbeknownst to many southerners, Aboriginal agitation for faster decision-making contributed to Ottawa’s decision to streamline the environmental assessment process for such projects.

The opportunities we forego if we get these things wrong astound. A pipeline transporting a million barrels of oil a day generates $36.5-billion a year when oil is $100 a barrel. That’s a lot of jobs, investment and tax revenue for Canada. But it generates nothing if we cannot get it built.

Or, to finish Shakespeare’s thought on the perishable nature of opportunity: On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.

Brian Lee Crowley is the managing director of MacDonald-Laurier Institute

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