Sep 19, 2011

Jobs and BC’s Resource Extraction Mindset


Day One of the week-long BC’s Jobs Plan: the Premier was in Prince Rupert to announce a commitment to making the port a “gateway” to Asia. Quoth Premier Clark:

I am in Prince Rupert today because if you are looking at Canada from Asia, with an eye to investing in our country, Canada truly starts here. It is through British Columbia ports where resources are shipped to Asia, and where goods arrive for distribution at home and to the rest of North America. A bright economic future for British Columbians is linked to opening up Asia-Pacific markets to the rest of Canada, and B.C.’s transportation network will be the key to success.

This is some wonderfully fresh thinking about BC’s economy and how government can create new jobs for the future. Oh, wait a sec, expanding exports to Asia has been the status quo for a couple decades now. Extracting resources for foreign markets goes back a century and a half.

But not only is this a replay of Greatest Hits from the 1980s and 1990s, it shows a government totally trapped in a resource extraction mentality, and an utter lack of imagination about developing an industrial strategy for the 21st century. While China has turned itself into an industrial super-power over the past couple decades, BC continues to rely on digging up and shipping out raw materials, then importing finished products. Increasingly, we have been exporting less processed materials like raw logs. If we are harvesting resources, minimally they need to have much more value added to them if we want to create good jobs.

Technically speaking, the government is committing a mere $15 million in support of transportation infrastructure, part of a $90 million project for which $30 million being put in by CN Rail. The Port of Prince Rupert is kicking in another $30 million, and the hope is that the feds will contribute another $15 million, so the full public subsidy is $60 million. A sweet deal for CN, who gets to pay 33 cent dollars on the project. And given the press release’s talk of transporting goods to market, let’s remember that CN is the company that bought BC Rail when it was privatized.

There was a time when the BC Liberals stood in stern opposition to public subsidies to business. But when we look across the resource landscape to private power projects, coal mines, and oil and gas, we see massive public subsidies all over the place.

This plan is predicated on continued expansion of trade to Asia, even as the price of fuel closes in on all-time highs. And that is with a global economy teetering on the brink of recession — if global demand were to pick up in a major way the costs of transportation could escalate even further. It is also trapped in a mindset that says all governments can do is create the conditions for foreign investors to come to BC and create our jobs for us.

In addition, there is also no consideration whatsoever of any environmental consequences in BC or elsewhere of ripping coal and other materials out of the ground for export markets. BC’s environmental assessment is essentially a rubber stamp for whatever big resource companies want to do, and provincial government workers that used to be eyes and ears of British Columbians on the ground have mostly been laid off (the context for the so-called “jobs plan” is a provincial effort to cut even deeper into public sector).

There are both local and global dimensions to environmental problems. The destruction of habitat in BC is just another cost of the resource extraction game that fails to be represented in the price of commodities we sell. Fossil fuel exports like coal also lead to huge greenhouse gas emissions in the Asian locales where they are combusted. Already, the amount of GHG emissions from burning BC coal in other jurisdictions are about the same as all of the fossil fuels we burn in BC each year.

Instead of rebranding the status quo to make it look like a jobs plan, I’d much prefer to see an industrial strategy aimed at weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels by investing in zero-emissions transportation infrastructure, retrofits of homes and buildings, aggressive recycling of materials in BC, and training and education to supply a skilled workforce to take on these green jobs. Phase one of the jobs plan will only lock us further into being a quarry for the rest of the world.

UPDATE: Clark will be expounding on plans for liquid natural gas terminals in Kitimat this afternoon. See this post for a review of this carbon bomb that would put almost twice BC’s current GHG emissions into the atmosphere each year.

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