Ted Morton, Special to Financial Post | Oct 24, 2012 9:08 PM ET | Last Updated:Oct 24, 2012 9:10 PM ET
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Natural gas might reverse Quebec’s declining influence
A made-in-Quebec natural gas industry would help to build a stronger Quebec. It would mean lower gas prices and huge savings for both households and businesses. This would make Quebec businesses more competitive, which translates into more exports, more jobs, and less out-migration.
Shale gas does not have to be at the expense of the environment.
Increased natural gas production is the most immediate and cost-effective way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in North America — including Quebec.
With respect to protecting groundwater and safe regulation of hydraulic fracturing, Quebec doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. Alberta is able and willing to share its experience and expertise in regulating fracking. Indeed, because of its unique geology, Quebec has the opportunity to set the standard for the cleanest natural gas production in North America.
Nor does development of Quebec’s shale gas have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Quebec could proceed with a smaller pilot project to allow for research that monitors social, economic and environmental impacts. This phrased-in approach was recently recommended for New Brunswick.
Speaking as both an Albertan and a Canadian, I think shale gas resources offer Quebeckers a unique opportunity to change the trajectory of its political economy. Both globally and nationally, there is a direct correlation between economic strength and political influence. Put differently, economic weakness and dependency are not political assets, particularly for a jurisdiction that seeks greater autonomy in shaping its future.
At the end of the Second World War, Alberta was the poorest province in Canada, and had little to no influence in Ottawa. In 1954, distinguished McGill University professor J.R. Mallory described Canada’s version of two-tier federalism: “The superior size and bargaining position of Ontario and Quebec give them a status and an autonomy which are different in kind to those of the rest of the provinces.… The outlying provinces are still Canada’s empire and Canada is still, for many purposes, little more than the original area which it encompassed at Confederation…. ”
To drive home his point, Mallory observed that Alberta and the other Western provinces were “provinces not in the same sense as were Ontario and Quebec, but in the Roman sense.”
Today, Alberta is the wealthiest province in Canada. It now has influence in Ottawa (and on Bay Street) that is more commensurate with its contribution to Canada’s economy.
Over this same period of time, Quebec has gone from one of the two wealthiest and most influential provinces to a “have-not” province, the largest recipient of equalization payments, a province with a steadily declining percentage of Quebec MPs in the House of Commons and a corresponding decline in influence in Ottawa.
Albertans don’t like it when someone from outside comes to town and tells them how to run their business. I think I can safely assume the same holds true in Quebec. I understand — and respect — the maitre chez nous ethos.
So I will simply close by saying that I think since the Quiet Revolution, Quebec political leaders from all parties have not succeeded in connecting their shared desire for greater political autonomy with corresponding economic policies — policies that nourish and facilitate greater political autonomy.
Over the same period in Alberta, economic strength has contributed to its growing political strength — economic growth that has been driven by the development of its oil and gas resources.
Today, Quebec shale gas resources hold out a similar opportunity for Quebec — an opportunity that does not have to come at the expense of its environment or quality of life. Indeed, done properly, shale gas development could enhance both.
If Quebec chooses this path, I am confident that Quebec will find a helpful ally in Alberta — not just in sharing best-practices technology and shale gas regulation, but also in shaping the evolving nature of Canadian federalism in a direction that respects and expands the political autonomy of provinces like Quebec and Alberta.
Ted Morton, formerly a minister in the Alberta government in the portfolios of energy, finance and sustainable resource development, is an executive fellow at the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary. This is excerpted from a presentation to the annual meeting of the Quebec Oil and Gas Association in Montreal on Oct. 22