Apr 26, 2013

Project Mania


One can excuse politicians in the heat of a campaign of simplifying issues and seeking out tags and slags in lieu of substantive debate. But there is no excuse for leading columnists of major newspapers, like Barbara Yaffe in her most recent attack on the BC NDP, to do the same.

Yaffe raises the spectre of economic doom because of the NDP’s opposition to a number of major projects. Much like the proponents’ themselves, she decries the jobs that may be lost if these projects do not go ahead. People will apparently have to go to Alberta, she suggests, to find work.

Of course, what she doesn’t say is that it won’t be British Columbians out of luck, because for the most part it won’t be British Columbians who would be hired if these projects go ahead. Virtually all labour market analysts are forecasting major shortages of mining and construction related trades. The workers for the new projects Yaffe is so concerned about would largely come from other parts of Canada and the rest of the world. There is little reason to believe that these projects would hire skilled British Columbians who would otherwise be unemployed. Those people just aren’t there.

That isn’t to say that the projects do not offer any benefit. They can provide programs and support for the upgrading of skills. They can generate tax revenues and increased income for British Columbians.  The problem is, they can also have significant costs.

The Prosperity mine project, for example, is fiercely opposed by First Nations and local environmental groups because of the impacts it would have on highly valued environmental and cultural resources. It would also have significant economic costs for British Columbians. Like other new projects requiring large amounts of electricity, the Prosperity mine would impose financial losses on BC Hydro of tens of millions of dollars per year — losses that British Columbians would have to make up in higher rates. There may be benefits but there is no credible evidence that these benefits, assessed in accordance with widely accepted economic principles, outweigh the costs.

Another project Yaffe mentions is the proposed Jumbo Glacier ski resort, and the hundreds of jobs it may offer. This project too is fiercely opposed by First Nations and local residents because of its impact on a highly valued remote wilderness area. And it also has economic as well as environmental costs. It will displace an existing heli-skiing operation. It will almost certainly displace  activity and spending at existing ski resorts in British Columbia and Alberta. And whatever incremental jobs it generates will not be filled by British Columbians. Ski resorts are already recruiting workers from all parts of the world because they can’t fill existing let alone new jobs with local workers. The net benefit this projects offers, if any,  is very unclear.

In the end all of these projects entail trade-offs. Careful assessments are required and judgments must be made. And ultimately the decisions that different parties make will reflect the values they hold — the weight they assign to different consequences. But being opposed to projects that by all accounts raise major issues and costs does not mean one is opposed to development. It is simply a judgment, as the federal government decided in its rejection of the original Prosperity mine project, that the project is not justified in the circumstances.

Yaffe could have argued why these projects are in fact justified notwithstanding the major costs they entail. She could challenge the assessments and the relative values that have to be made to reject them. I could respect that. But the mindless partisan rant with no recognition of the trade-offs and judgment that must be made is a disservice to all. It certainly does not inform and enhance what should be very important political debates.