The Essential Question Is Whether We Want Our Rural Communities To Survive and Prosper

The article of January 20th in support of resource industries prompted many supportive emails. It also received a decidedly frosty response from a tight-knit posse of activists, some of whose viewpoints were printed in the January 27th opinion section.

In any debate, it is useful to first address questions of fact, so that differences of opinion can be more easily discerned.

My article stated that “Resource industries do not ask for handouts to create jobs for communities.” That was not a well-considered sentence, in particular because it has not been at all true of paper mills.

Raymond Plourde is right to point out, as was noted in this space in August, 2012, that the previous NDP Government spent lavishly and often unwisely in support of the paper mills, especially the one in Port Hawkesbury.

Although there have been no further subsidy agreements with the paper mills since the Liberals took power, it would be naïve to suggest that more will not be requested. Whether the Liberals will maintain the discipline they have shown in other fields, or cave in as they have to filmmakers, remains to be seen.

Plourde also mentions the loan by the NDP government to Cooke Aquaculture. The amount actually lent was $18 million, of which the potentially forgivable $2 million has been repaid. The other $16 million is said to be “current”, but what that means is far from clear.

The Dexter government was ecumenical in its bad choices, throwing away $60 million in support of the short-lived wind turbine plant in Trenton, and millions more in a furniture plant in Dartmouth and a fish processor in Port Mouton, shortly before they went bankrupt.

In mining, the Donkin, Touquoy, and Dufferin sites have been revived, at a cost paid by private investments in the hundreds of millions. They received no government support.

Fuel taxes are used to help pay for construction and maintenance of public roads. Fishing boats and off-road vehicles for forestry and farming are exempt, which is not a subsidy. The mining industry has been recently added to this list for its vehicles not using public roads.

Far from seeking handouts, the oil and gas industry has over the years contributed about $3 billion dollars in royalties and related payments to the provincial treasury.

Plourde correctly points to the decades-old messes left behind by Sydney Steel and the effluent discharges at Boat Harbour as evidence of regulatory failure, resulting in expensive cleanups funded by taxpayers. He neglected to add that the decisions leading to that outcome were taken decades ago, at a time when environmental regulation did not have the importance that it rightfully deserves.

He goes on to say that the recent auditor general’s report gave “a seriously failing grade for monitoring and compliance of environmental regulations.”

The AG does not give grades; he reports facts and makes recommendations. Ironically, most of the projects subject to review by the AG were wind farms. Does Plourde propose a cease and desist on developing those? None of the projects reviewed by the AG related to aquaculture or forestry.

The above addresses most of the questions of fact. Let’s look at matters of opinion.

(1) The acreage annually affected by forestry harvesting is half of what it was in the nineties, and less than 1% of Nova Scotia’s forested area. Plourde would prefer that most of the forests, including the two-thirds privately owned, be left fallow for a century or two to recreate conditions in precolonial times.

My view is that harvesting at the current rate is sustainable, and that government should not instruct tree farmers on how to manage their land any more than they do for farmers growing grapes or corn.

(2) We agree that the lavish subsidies to paper mills in the past were not wise. It is appropriate to have special electricity rates for large customers who agree to shut down in periods of peak demand, thereby reducing capacity requirements in the system.

Nevertheless, there is reason to worry whether one, or possibly both, of the remaining mills will eventually close, given the dwindling use of paper.

In my view, this provides more reason to actively pursue other resource-based opportunities.

(3) Plourde believes that regulatory oversight can never be effective, at least not for projects he dislikes.

The Doelle-Lahey report on aquaculture thoroughly examined that question and came to a different conclusion:

“A number of participants in our process urged us to conclude that … salmon farms – cannot be sustainably operated, and to recommend that a permanent moratorium be imposed … Our conclusion, after careful consideration of the state of the science and opportunities to reduce impacts through effective regulations, is that the regulatory framework should not be prohibitory at a provincial scale.”

The government took more than three years to revise the regulatory environment in the light of the Doelle-Lahey recommendations.

(4) We agree that clearing land for human economic activity displaces habitat for other species, whether it be for developing subdivisions, installing wind turbines and associated transmission infrastructure, building a container terminal or airport, growing fruits and vegetables, creating a golf course, or harvesting trees for their fiber. In all but the last case the displacement is permanent.

Where we appear to differ is on how much displacement is acceptable.

By world standards, Nova Scotia is a lightly populated area, and our rural populations are shrinking. I believe that it is very important for that shrinking to stop and that, as advocated in the Ivany report, our resource industries are an important part of the solution.

Many rural areas agree, fearing the loss of yet more schools. It is instructive that the Guysborough municipality recently sent a letter to provincial politicians urging them to allow fracking in their area.

It is less clear whether Plourde thinks making our rural communities sustainable is important. He appears to always subordinate that to habitat considerations for other species, and to prefer that most of the province should become like a National Park.

Those who want strong rural communities, but want to abolish all mining and quarrying, marine-based salmon farms, oil and gas development, and paper mills are invited to explain how they imagine those communities can keep their young people and thrive.


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