Here is the final instalment of my four posts on the NDP government’s mistakes and successes. Mistakes here and here. Successes, part one, here, part two below. Between now and election day, I’ll post a selection of reader responses, more of which are always welcome.
4. Wilderness protection
Two hundred years from now, few Nova Scotians will know whether the provincial government balanced its books in 2013, or how much power rates increased between 2009 and 2013, or even who Darrell Dexter was. But they will know that a significant amount of Nova Scotia’s spectacular wilderness areas was permanently protected for the benefit of people and wildlife.
Building on a foundation laid by Mark Parent, environment minister in the Rodney MacDonald government, the NDP has taken Nova Scotia from a mediocre record of wilderness conservation to a position of national leadership.
The Protected Areas Plan for Nova Scotia, released in August, capped several rounds of public and stakeholder consultations to identify lands worthy of protection. It increased the total percentage of protected lands in the province from 9.4 percent (second lowest among Canadian provinces) to 13 percent now (second only to British Columbia, at 14 percent). The total will grow to about 14 percent as new sites are protected over the next few years. The newly protected lands include 700 kilometres of coastline and about 2600 lakes and watercourses.
The plan won praise from the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Nova Scotia Nature Trust, the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, and the Ecology Action Centre, whose wilderness co-ordinator, Raymond Plourde, lauded the government for “hard work and steadfast support for conservation.”
Extending the percentage of protected areas to 14 percent of the province assumes the government to be sworn in next month will continue the plan. The Liberal Party platform [PDF] says the party “support(s) the protection of land,” but at least one Liberal candidate, Lloyd Hines, running in Guysborough, has called for a halt to further land protection.
The Mining Association of Nova Scotia accused the government of putting future economic growth at risk by permanently protecting land from economic use. It will lobby the incoming government to allow land swaps, so mining and quarrying companies can access the protected land.
5. A five-year highway plan
For decades, Nova Scotia governments have tried to control budget deficits, some more successfully than others. Nova Scotia has another kind of deficit we rarely hear about: a highway infrastructure deficit. The province has about 23,000 km. of roads, and for years, we’ve been wearing them out faster than we fix them.
Paving and politics are deeply entwined, which means road construction and maintenance decisions haven’t always reflected objective criteria. The Dexter Government took several useful steps to arrest and begin reversing the decline of our highways:
- It produced and published a five-year plan for highway and bridge maintenance and construction. The plan’s annual updates are readily available on the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal website. Four instalments have been produced so far. They are not perfect. They are vague about the timeframes for multi-year, 100-series highway expansion projects, but they represent a big improvement over plans drawn up on a napkin in the minister’s back pocket.
- The province improved its criteria for maintaining paved roads. In the past, when paving decisions weren’t based on pure politics, they were prioritized on a worst-first basis. Roads in the worst condition got paved first. This sounds logical, but it ignores a key fact about highway engineering. At a certain point in their lifespan, paved roads begin to show signs of deterioration. If early steps are taken to repair the damage—by sealing cracks, applying a mixture of stone chips and asphalt, micro sealing with a thin layer of asphalt, or applying a single layer of asphalt—major reconstruction can be delayed for several years.
- The Dexter Government took two bold steps to rectify the costly consequences of non-competitive bidding on major highway jobs. It purchased a paving plant and deployed it in rural counties where a lack of competitive bidding led to construction costs that were much higher than in neighbouring New Brunswick. The government established a provincial chip-seal crew for the same reason. Predictably, the paving cartel went ballistic and hired a PR outfit to plant horror stories with business-compliant reporters bemoaning delays and cost overruns in the civil service paving crews. But paving bids plummeted by amounts that dwarfed the provincial overruns.
The interactive map above, cribbed from the department’s website, shows that highway projects are still over-concentrated in government ridings. To some extent, this is inevitable given the NDP sweep of rural ridings in 2009. But the steps outlined above represent a serious effort to address highway deterioration that a new government would be imprudent to abandon for short term political gain.
6. The Maritime Link
The natural gas industry, the wind power industry, the province’s two opposition parties, and a bogus citizens’ group that is really a front for the gas industry have had a field day parlaying voter resentment over recent power rate increases into skepticism about the wisdom of developing the Maritime Link to receive electricity from Muskrat Falls in Labrador. The quality of their arguments has ranged from shallow and self-serving to intellectually dishonest.
Simply put, the government that takes office next month would be nuts to pass up the chance to open a power corridor to Labrador, site of the largest untapped hydro resource on earth. [Disclosure: In 2011 and 2012, I carried out writing projects for Emera involving the Maritime Link.]
Historically, the big problem with Nova Scotia’s electrical system is a lack of diversity. When oil was cheap in the ’50s and ’60s, we over-committed to oil-fired power plants, only to see the price of oil increase almost tenfold in the 1970s. We repeated the mistake in the 1980s, replacing all those oil-fired plans with coal plants. This made sense at a time when coal was cheap, mining it created local jobs, and no one had heard of climate change. But the last big mine closed in
2000 2001, and since then we’ve sent hundreds of millions of dollars a year to coal brokers in faraway lands, with no local local economic benefit. Once again, we found ourselves at the mercy of wild swings in the price of imported fossil fuels.
The obvious solution is to diversify our electricity supply, and increase our access to market priced electricity, so we will never again find ourselves shackled to world prices for fossil fuels. In short, the solution is a little coal, a little natural gas, a little wind, a little hydro, eventually a little tidal, and occasional purchases from the North American grid—something we can’t do today, because our slender electrical connection to New Brunswick is too frail to support significant imports.
The Maritime Link serves this strategy in several ways:
- It assures Nova Scotia a 35-year supply of clean, renewable energy sufficient to meet eight to 10 percent of our current electricity demand (and much more than that in the first five years, owing to a quirk in the arrangement with Nalcor, the Newfoundland energy utility).
- Because Muskrat Falls is the small first step in a series of massive hydro developments planned in Newfoundland and Labrador, the Maritime Link will give us preferred access to that additional clean renewable energy when it comes on line.
- When Newfoundland’s lamented contract with Quebec for power from the massive Churchill Falls generating station expires in 2041—not that far off in utility planning terms—the Maritime Link will also give us preferred access to that clean renewable energy.
- Because Newfoundland has its eye on the massive electricity demand in New England and New York, construction of the Maritime Link will lead to construction of a robust transmission corridor between Cape Breton and Boston. This, too, can only increase our options for power purchases and sales at market prices.
- At the moment, we have maxed out the capacity of our electricity grid to absorb intermittent power sources like wind. Hydro power makes an ideal backup for wind power because, unlike coal-fired plants, it can be ramped up quickly when wind turbines tapers off due to diminishing winds. The Maritime Link will enable further expansion of clean, renewable wind power in Nova Scotia.
These advantages are so solid and so varied as to make Nova Scotia’s embrace of the project the obvious choice. Against them, the project’s critics, all of whom have some vested interest in a competing fuel source or in defeating the current government, draw comparisons to the spot price of whatever fuel source is cheapest at the moment. They pretend we can base 35-year power planning decisions on the assumption that prices will stay that low for three decades.
This is rank nonsense. Every serious energy planner knows the only reliable thing about fossil fuel prices is that they are sure to gyrate wildly, while trending relentlessly upward. Last year, the prospect of tapping massive shale gas deposits made natural gas the darling of the day, but now gas prices have gone up again, and some energy experts contend the shale gas bubble is poised to burst.
By contrast, hydro projects look expensive at the start, but like the sweetest of bargains five or 10 years into their decades-long lifespans. The notoriously low price Hydro Quebec pays for power from Churchill Falls—currently one-quarter of a cent per kilowatt-hour—was actually above the market price when the contract was signed in late 1960s. All the costs of building a hydro development are payable up front, but because they use no fuel, hydro plants go on producing for decades at stable prices that look better with each passing year. Can any of the Maritime Link’s naysayers claim coal and gas prices will not increase over the next 35 years?
When analysts pick over the bones of the NDP’s almost certain defeat in next week’s election, they will focus on the issue of electricity rates. The NDP government has been honest about the short-term costs of converting Nova Scotia’s electricity system from its decades-old over-reliance on imported fossil fuels to a diverse mix of renewable sources, and it made the right decision committing to the Maritime Link. Opposition parties have pandered to public resentment over recent power rate increases, while offering magical promises to freeze rates and lower renewable targets (in the case of the Tories), or to abandon energy efficiency and adopt deregulation strategies that have proven disastrous in other jurisdictions (in the case of the Liberals).
That this contrast—honesty and sound decisions vs. pandering and magic solutions—will see the NDP driven from office is surely the most dispiriting aspect of recent public discourse in Nova Scotia.