Fraser Forum

William Watson: Is sustainable energy really sustainable? Not if you count fiscal sustainability, too.

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As part of keeping abreast of policy and politics, I subscribe to the e-mail services of the major federal political parties. So far I have drawn a line at Twitter. There’s a limit to how much time I want to devote to analyzing public policy. In a sense I already do it 24/7. But I prefer not to do it frontal-lobe 24/7. At some stage the brain has to lie fallow, or chew the cud already taken in.

In any case, the parties’ e-mail departments are prolific enough. If the government they all aspire to run were as productive, Canadians could worry less about the general good. Most mail at least once a day, sometimes more. It would be interesting to learn what evidence convinces them this is a smart thing to do, rather than one that royally irritates just about everyone not monitoring e-mail as part of their work.

In terms of productivity, there seems to be an inverse relationship between political success and output. The Green Party, with just one member of Parliament, the omni-present Elizabeth May, seems to be most prolific. During the election campaign it sent out several e-mails a day. If you wanted to, you could know what Ms. May was doing at virtually any moment in the electoral day or evening.

The very latest e-missive from the Greens (and I’d better write quickly before another one comes in) concerns the Nova Scotia government’s apparent plan to get behind the re-opening of the Donkin coal mine in Cape Breton. The Greens oppose this on the grounds that, as Ms. May is quoted as saying, “Cape Breton coal is notoriously understood to be high in many toxic pollutants, sulphur dioxide, and green house gases. For the sake of 120 jobs, Nova Scotia must not undercut our kids’ future.” (I suspect she meant to say “is understood to be notoriously high” rather than “is notoriously understood.” It’s not notorious that people understand this point, surely. I always wonder, by the way, if people quoted in press releases actually say what they’re quoted as saying. Or do they simply approve the press release without actually speaking the words they are supposed to have spoken?)

Depending on just how far the Nova Scotia government plans to go to preserve those 120 coal jobs, most market enthusiasts would agree with Ms. May (or her copywriter). A long history suggests provincial governments are willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to preserve individual jobs. In some cases, they spend more than the people who currently hold the jobs would probably accept as a settlement to give up the jobs quietly and let the economy take its course. Greens, Reds, Blues, Canadians of whatever colour should be able to agree this is not a good thing to do.

If Nova Scotia is merely granting permission, however, and if the mine complies with all existing laws and regulations, including environmental ones, market enthusiasts would probably say, “Let the market decide.” If someone wants to make a go of the mine and is spending his or her own money to do so, more power to them.

Ms. May, on the other hand, seems pretty much dead-set against what she calls the “appalling” possibility that Nova Scotia is moving ahead. Instead, she would have the province “make the types of investments that will bring long-term sustainable economic prosperity to all Nova Scotia residents.”

The trouble is, are the kinds of investments she has in mind truly sustainable or do they require long-term subsidy? If they don’t require subsidy, then no one really needs to urge that they be undertaken. If there’s a profit to be made doing them, someone will do them—so long as profit remains legal in Nova Scotia, that is.

But if they require subsidy, they’re not really sustainable, are they? They exist only because the government decides they should exist. And that means that in one way or another they also “undercut our kids’ future,” to use Ms. May’s phrase. If they’re subsidized out of taxes, the higher tax rates they require hit economic growth and thus undercut what Nova Scotia kids can earn in future. If they’re subsidized out of borrowing, they leave a debt bill for those same kids to pay.

There’s no doubt: Unsustainability does undercut our kids’ future. But that’s as true for fiscal unsustainability as environmental unsustainability.