Tinderbox Issues Ahead for Government

Published in the Telegraph-Journal 24th February 2012

In coming months, the David Alward government will face its first real test when its position on two critical issues are made public. Its decisions on forestry policy and shale gas regulations will provide a tense backdrop to the remainder of its mandate. Because both issues have polarized interest groups and citizens across New Brunswick, public support for the government’s positions is at risk, regardless of what the decisions will be. The fact that these issues will receive the full glare of media attention at roughly the same time that the provincial budget will be released adds pressure to a government that is walking a tightrope of public support.

While forestry may not be a sunset industry, it is in the doldrums.  The industry has been pressing government to make supply concessions that will not please environmentalists. Industry would be happy to increase clear-cutting practices because clear-cutting is the most productive method to harvest lumber. Environmental groups want clear-cutting to be dramatically reduced or banned altogether as well as decreasing the amount of cutting in stream-side buffers, deer habitat and old spruce-fir habitat. Forestry industry detractors argue that an increase in investment in New Brunswick’s forestry industry will pay no dividends in revenues or jobs; they point out that over the last ten years product output from New Brunswick’s forestry industry has more than doubled, but without a corresponding increase in employment.  This productivity increase is largely the consequence of process improvements and technology substitution and has kept mills alive in this province that otherwise would have been closed years ago. Industry’s response has been that, without supportive government policies, what remains of New Brunswick’s forestry industry is in jeopardy, including the thousands of jobs spread across some of the province’s most economically challenged geography.

Both sides have adopted positions that are unyielding if not intractable. The government is faced with a political minefield over solutions to the challenge of balancing environmental concerns with economic factors. The likelihood that disagreements about forest management in New Brunswick will be settled any time soon is remote.

The issues associated with shale gas drilling regulations are complex. The New Brunswick government has ambitiously committed to establishing tough standards on drilling practices; Premier Alward has promised that he wants New Brunswick to have “the strongest shale gas exploration regulations on the continent.” The implications of this commitment potentially are profound. Environmentalists and landowners will want to know what acids, hydroxides and other materials are being pumped into specific wells. Regulations may need to involve the mandatory disclosure of the volume of water needed to drill each well since many experts view this as critical information to evaluate how fracking affects water supplies. Some of the most critical aspects of shale gas regulation will revolve around how the regulations will be monitored and how enforcement will be administered. Regulation, monitoring and enforcement will represent a substantial challenge to government.

Fracking has become a flash point between environmentalists and those who think stopping shale gas development at a time when New Brunswick needs jobs and revenues reflect poorly ranked priorities.

These two tinderbox issues are not the government’s only risk problems. The New Brunswick government’s projected deficit is forecast to be approximately $471 million for 2011-2012, higher than the $448 million that Finance Minister Blaine Higgs estimated in his budget last March. There’s not much good news on the growth side of the ledger, either. Private-sector job growth has slowed dramatically and has come to a halt in industries that are exposed to global competition. Government fiscal austerity measures will mean reductions in public-sector jobs as well.  And the specter of federal government budget cuts looms large on the horizon. The provincial government is faced with what may be the most profound challenges of its mandate.

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Filed under Environment policy, Government transformation, New Brunswick

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