Atlantic Canada must make tough energy decisions

Over the course of the past decade, energy issues have become louder and louder in Atlantic Canada; today, energy policy has recently often been the single biggest file for governments in the region. With the Muskrat Falls megaproject, shale gas exploration, and the Energy East pipeline have come a number of decisions Easterners must make—these decisions will play a large part in shaping the region’s economic future.

Let’s first examine the Lower Churchill Project. The project is often simply referred to as “Muskrat Falls,” the waterfall that is being developed for electiricty generation. Muskrat Falls will be owned by Nalcor, which the NL government created in 2007 as a publically-owned electricity-market monopolist. Through its subsidiary NL Hydro, Nalcor has the sole right to supply and sell electricity in the province. And despite the fact that government’s Lower Churchill development plan includes the construction of a Maritime link that connects NL’s electric grid to the mainland’s without passing through Quebec, the NL government has severely restricted interprovincial trade.

By denying Newfoundlanders and Labradorians other electricity options, the province’s government has given Nalcor the power to raise its rates at a whim. This power allows for the construction of the Muskrat Falls project, which will cost $7.7-billion.Without its monopoly, Nalcor would not be able to pay for the project: many economists think the project in uneconomical. In fact, NL’s Public Utilities Board (PUB) could not conclude that the project was the province’s least-cost energy option, stating that there were “gaps in Nalcor’s information and analysis.”

Because of the project’s high costs, the NL government will have to borrow $5-billion—that is, nearly $10,000 for each of its of its residents. With these potential consequences for the both the province’s debt and its electrical rates and output, the NL government’s management of Muskrat Falls will have serious ramifications for the province far into the future.

Muskrat Falls also has ramifications for Nova Scotian energy markets. Emera, Nova Scotia’s publically traded energy corporation will cover 20 per cent of the Maritime link’s cost in exchange for 20 per cent of the electricity produced at Muskrat Falls. Further, Nalcor will be able to use Emera’s transmission rights to sell electricity in the Maritimes and New England.

New Brunswick (NB) faces an equally dramatic energy situation. Two issues dominate energy discussions in the province: hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) and TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline. Tests for shale gas, which NB Premier David Alward hopes will be extracted through fracking, have prompted locals to (often violently) protest. Fiscally, however, potential fracking revenues seem to be the NB government’s only way to pay for its current level of services without raising taxes or adding to the provincial debt, which is approaching $12-billion.

Although New Brunswick’s fracking debate has been Atlantic Canada’s loudest, shale-gas extraction proposals have also provoked argument in NL and Nova Scotia. Recently, the NL government imposed a moratorium on fracking until it has consulted the public and conducted reviews. Nova Scotia has had a fracking moratorium for about two years, though it is set to expire this summer.

New Brunswick can also expect to benefit from the construction of the Energy East pipeline, which will bring Albertan oil to Saint John’s Irving Oil refinery. The most noticeable gains from project will take place during its development and construction: a report by Deloitte found that the pipeline will boost New Brunswick’s GDP by $1.1-billion in this period. And during its 40-year operations phase, the pipeline project will add $1.6-billion to the province’s economy, though it will only directly create 121 permanent jobs.

With Muskrat Falls, NL is taking a significant fiscal risk and trapping consumers with the hope of becoming an energy power. Any jurisdiction that allows fracking must balance the benefits of increased economic activity and royalties with potential environmental harm and local frustrations. And the Energy East pipeline could give NB the sort of economic and fiscal boost it needs. Energy may enrich Atlantic Canada, but squandering it may breed regret.

Michael Sullivan is a 2013-2014 Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ Student Fellow. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the Institute

Against Smoking Bans in “Public Spaces”

In Canada, the government prohibits smoking in “indoor public spaces,” which, according to the law, consist of bars, restaurants, bowling alleys, etc. The term “indoor public spaces,” however, is misleading: they are public only in the sense that there are other people sharing the space, yet, many of these “indoor public spaces” are owned by private individuals. There are several reasons for protecting their right to choose whether they want a smoke-free or smoke-filled establishment.

Many complain that smoking in bars is encouraging to nonsmokers and exposes them to secondhand smoke. There are many reasons why this argument may not hold. For now, though, it is more important to focus on the demonization of smoking. By categorically prohibiting restaurant owners from allowing their customers to smoke inside, the government prevents people from doing something they may want to do, i.e. to smoke in a bar or own a bar that allows smoking). Smoking is not good or bad “in itself,” but, rather, it is only good or bad according to individual preference, including, but not limited to, the tradeoff of overall health for immediate pleasure, the terms of which some individuals would happily agree with. Moreover, there is an enormous amount of information detailing the economic, health, and social harms associated with smoking available to consumers that allows them to choose intelligently.

A popular argument for banning smoking in indoor public spaces pertains to workers’ rights: smoking indoors threatens employee health and welfare and because many workers do not have the convenience of choosing their place of employment–so the argument goes–allowing it forces them to choose between inhaling toxic cigarette fumes and unemployment.

To some extent, indoor smoking harms workers. Does that really justify banning it?

Closer examination of firm behavior demonstrates that it varies based on the economic implications of “safety.” Between 2008 and 2010, 700 construction workers died from workplace injuries in Canada. In addition, 637 individuals died in manufacturing workplaces and 329 in the transportation industry. Although these numbers may seem surprising, the theory of compensating differentials explains why outcomes in some industries differ from those in others.

According to the compensating wage differentials theory, workers are compensated by firms in a number of ways: these include wages, nonwage benefits, and working conditions. Any given individual has a set of preferences between these forms of compensation. A risk adverse employee, for instance, may be willing to give up much of his paycheck for a little more safety. Someone comfortable with risk, however, could be willing to put herself squarely in danger’s way for better pay. That some individuals are comfortable with more risk explains why construction workers, for instance, agree to work in dangerous settings: higher compensation allays most concerns, whereas lower compensation highlights them. Firms need to offer compensation for labour to attract workers—when they decrease safety, labour supply shrinks and forces the firm to boost wages. Thus, there is a positive correlation between risk and compensation. And there is no authoritatively “ideal” level of risk; instead, there is a multitude of individually preferred ones.

Thus, to attract workers, owners of establishments that allow smoking indoors would need to offer wages high enough to distract employees from the health hazard associated with working there (assuming these concerns are present). For some workers, the increase in pay would offset their health concerns. Similarly, restaurant owners must consider whether indoor smoking discourages consumers from eating at their establishment. If there is growing opposition to smoking, for example, restaurant owners must choose between allowing customers to smoke indoors and losing whatever percentage of their customer base that refuses to eat in an establishment that permits indoor smoking.

Examining both consumer and employee perspectives on smoking indoors lead to a common conclusion: laws dictating firm behavior typically enforce an arbitrary standard and ignore individual preferences. Instead, the government should allow property owners to decide what is best for their respective establishments and let people pursue their individual desires freely.

Michael Sullivan is a 2013-2014 Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ Student Fellow. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the Institute

Journalism can survive without the CBC

The CBC announced last week its intentions to make serious cuts to its services. They come after significant revenue losses pertaining to government funding and advertising, and have reignited debate about the necessity of a national public broadcaster.

Defenders of public broadcasting commonly opine that a media outlet uncontrolled by corporate influence is necessary in a democracy. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that they are right. Perhaps one day, the CBC may have been necessary because one television stations, radio stations, or printing presses to reach people across the country. Indeed, government might have been the only non-corporate entity with the resources necessary to provide media independent of industry. But today, in the age of blogging, Twitter, and online-only news, anyone can speak to the nation provided consumers are willing to hear and read what they have to say. It would be misleading to argue that these sources are accountable to “big business” while the CBC is not despite depending on advertising revenue from those very businesses.

There also seems to be little need for national broadcasters independent of corporate influence. Canada’s top new channels, such as CTV and Global, provide coverage at a level of quality equal to CBC’s. Furthermore, the country’s national newspapers, and many local counterparts, provide thoughtful coverage and analysis, comparable to, if not exceeding, the CBC’s quality.

These comments on the quality of various media outlets, however, are personal. Picking a favourite source of news is an individual choice based on a subjective valuation of whichever characteristics said individual cares about in a media outlet, not to mention these sources compete to give their audience what it wants–even CBC.

CBC is not above this battle for two reasons: 1) it too relies on advertising revenue to stay afloat and, therefore, must boost its ratings at the expense of what some many call “good” journalism and 2) if other media outlets do a far better job of winning audiences, the CBC must, by necessity, lose a portion of its audience in exchange. Without viewers, listeners, and readers, its allegedly “superior,” or “necessary,” content has little impact.

What of claims that private media does not publish stories embarrassing to business?

The argument that corporate-sponsored news shelters business interests conflates “business,” and those that articulate this argument view “big business” as an evil, amorphous blob. Businesses compete, and often have an incentive to identify flaws in those competing with them. Moreover, private media affords consumers what they want: if people want coverage of corporate scandals, then it would be imprudent for news sources to ignore them.

It seems the oft-repeated argument that the CBC’s superior, independent journalism provides information necessary for an informed citizenry to participate in democracy relies mostly on baseless assertions about what constitutes “good” journalism. Further, it cannot provide a common knowledge base for citizens, as competing media sources that aren’t markedly worse than CBC capture most of the market share. Independent of its other undertakings, the CBC is not necessary in the world of Canadian journalism.

Michael Sullivan is a 2013-2014 Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ Student Fellow. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the Institute