At age 69, Blaine Higgs is the oldest premier in New Brunswick’s history. Thankfully, the Progressive Conservative premier shows more wisdom on the energy transition than the Canadian prime minister almost two decades his junior.
Higgs graduated from the University of New Brunswick as an engineer and worked 33 years for Irving Oil. In 2010, he was elected as a Progressive Conservative MLA. In a conversation with Brian Lilley on the Full Comment podcast, Higgs recalled, “I wanted to make use of what I learned to make better decisions using facts and analysis and criteria, building better service models or delivery.”
That was the approach Higgs made as Minister of Finance from 2010 to 2014 before the Liberals briefly took the provincial reigns. In 2016, Higgs beat former Saint John Mayor Mel Norton for the PC party leadership, and in the 2018 election, Higgs ran on modest promises and fiscal responsibility to win the province’s first minority government in 100 years–despite not winning the popular vote.
Higgs’ competence helped lead his party to a majority in 2020. His tenure has been marked with balanced budgets, lower taxes, but record levels of spending on health care and education. The province has gone from a stagnant economy and population growth to healthy gains in both.
Unfortunately, Ottawa seems bent on destroying this success story. Irving Oil, owner of Canada’s largest refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick, recently announced everything was on the table in its strategic review.
“Consideration will be given to a new ownership structure, a full or partial sale, or a change in the portfolio of our assets and how we operate them.”
Higgs told the Financial Post he has been in touch with Irving Oil before and since the announcement, but added, “The ongoing concern about the impact of federal policies on this business has been expressed time and time again.”
Carbon taxes, the clean fuel standard, onerous regulations that have prevented pipeline advances, have all taken their toll. Higgs says he puts his province first, the PC party second, but contends that the prime minister is bent on net zero carbon emissions, no matter the detriment to the Canadian economy or the cost to New Brunswick.
“There’s not a recognition of the reality of what we’ll be using for energy sources going forward. And it’s like, we’re putting Canada in a bubble here,” Higgs said.
“If this refinery doesn’t run, then we’ll buy refined fuel from India or the Middle East, or…other countries that don’t have anywhere close to the standards of operational excellence and reduced emissions that that our own operations have here.”
Not only is that bad for the environment, it’s also bad for the economy.
“We’ve seen the exodus of capital investment leave Alberta and Saskatchewan. And we’re seeing it here, right in this announcement, which I am disappointed at.”
Irving Oil, which employees 4,000 people, has done a lot to address the environment already.
“When ethanol became part of the gasoline fuel standard, and it was considered a big environmental move–at 10%, Irving Oil was one of the first in the country to adopt that…They were already, let’s say, 25 or 30 per cent better than any other operation, but no recognition for that.”
Of course not.
The pursuit of net zero is like a limbo game where the bar keeps dropping until it’s too low for anyone to get under. That’s when every extraction and refinery operation stops playing and–voila! Net zero.
Higgs says the carbon credit system of the federal Clean Fuel Standard does not allow the reduced emissions of exports to be claimed.
“Eighty per cent of the barrels coming out of this refinery do not qualify for the carbon credit. So that immediately puts them in a huge disadvantage,” Higgs said, in a federal policy that reflects an “artificial view of what’s reality.”
The premier said four coal-fired power plants in Altantic Canada could be repowered with natural gas within two years to reduce the region’s emissions by 50 per cent,” but the federal government’s anti-fossil fuel philosophy does not lend well to that.
“You look at hydrogen, it’s gonna be ten years before we really have any significant volume; some companies will say that it’s going to be 25 years before there’ll be any significant volume. The SMRs [small modular nuclear reactors] are over ten years,” Higgs said.
“Couldn’t we step back, have a scientific analysis of how we can do what we can, and what timeline, and not just have an overarching view?”
You mean trust the science? That was popular not long ago, wasn’t it?
“[We shouldn’t be] basing it on a political kind of belief, but basing it on the reality of supply, and not handing over our energy source to other countries that don’t come anywhere near the standards that we already have,” Higgs said.
Unfortunately, as Lilley himself put it, Ottawa puts “ideology first, reality second.” That makes the future foreboding for New Brunswick and Canada.
Lee Harding is Research Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.