Sunday, September 18, 2011

Book Review: Power Failure?

The story can be found in the headlines of virtually any province at any given time. Political parties eager to propose an economic panacea team up with energy developers who make sure to lock in their own profits before anything can go wrong to sell the public on natural resource development - which predictably produces results which favour the private-sector promoter without leading to much public good. And the opportunity for broader and more sustainable development is missed in the attempt to direct energy resources toward the most obvious immediate purchaser (who frequently has better options than the resource a province wants to promote).

But far too rarely does the previous pattern of empty promises get pointed out when the latest proposal is being pitched. And Richard Starr's Power Failure? is a worthwhile read in highlighting just how predictable the pattern is - even if Starr's focus is solely on the energy industry of a single Canadian province.

Naturally, the theme has gone few a through variations over the time period discussed by Starr. The resources in question are now oil, gas and electric power rather than coal. The government's place in the puzzle has ranged from granting monopoly charters to providing subsidies and bailouts, from operating industries itself to privatizing them at cut-rate prices. And the means of extracting money into private hands have evolved from "watered" stock, to corporate mergers and restructurings, and then to long-term contracts locking in profits at public expense.

Whatever the particulars of the moment, however, the overarching message looks to apply equally to most resources in most provinces as to the specific example of Nova Scotia. Resource industries are inevitably dependent on factors beyond the control of a single province. But they're also an appealing source of speculative hope for a province - and there's always somebody waiting to sell that dream at an inflated price.

And what's perhaps most remarkable in is the frequent lack of dissent on any particular resource development scheme. Starr rightly notes that a number of the most questionable moves in Nova Scotia's history of resource management passed with little or no opposition - hinting at the difficulty involved in making any case against development, no matter how flawed a scheme may appear in retrospect.

Of course, with rare exceptions the resource issues themselves form only a relatively small part of the political scene. But if the usual ebb and flow of resource politics has a greater impact in enriching the well-connected at the expense of the public than in substantively influencing public opinion, that only makes for all the more reason not to be drawn into the folly. And Starr's book offers plenty of evidence to support anybody arguing for a more principled stand than most politicians are willing to take.

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