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Opinion

Clark's Gas Gamble Now Risks Your Kid's Education, Too

Premier bets more than money on dicey LNG industry.

By Bill Tieleman 6 May 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Bill Tieleman is a former NDP strategist whose clients include unions and businesses in the resource and public sector. Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at weststar@telus.net or visit his blog.

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The three education initials Premier Clark wants to see are LNG, not PhD.

"The descent of the university into the market place reflects the lie in the soul of modern society." -- Harold Innis, Canadian political economist, 1894-1952

The best way to gamble is with other people's money. But as Premier Christy Clark doubles down her bet on liquefied natural gas in a world market riskier than a casino, it's not just your money she's gambling with -- it's also your children and grandchildren's future education.

Clark's recent, breathless photo-op announcement that energy firms Shell Canada, PetroChina, Korea Gas and Mitsubishi have agreed to join something called "LNG Canada" is nearly meaningless without signed agreements to extract, process and export liquefied natural gas.

Even LNG Canada CEO Andy Calitz admitted potential projects "are challenged by significant financial investment and risks" and "a number of uncertainties to overcome."

That's a fracking understatement.

Recent studies on the world LNG market are clear it's no sure bet B.C. will develop a substantial industry.

Less reported was that Shell Canada bought five per cent of both Korea Gas and Mitsubishi's share in LNG Canada -- it now owns 50 per cent and PetroChina 20 per cent, while Korea Gas and Mitsubishi have dropped to 15 per cent each, with Korea Gas admitting its government ordered the company to reduce its debts.

Did I mention it's your money Clark is betting on LNG?

Then, just last week, the B.C. premier made another announcement -- one related to this industry plagued by "risks" and "uncertainties."

Clark's government is forcing all post-secondary institutions to re-direct their budgets to allocate 25 per cent into job training for "high demand" occupations -- and you can wager that the three education initials it wants to see are LNG, not PhD.

With $1.9 billion currently budgeted in B.C. for post-secondary education and only 10 per cent currently earmarked for "high demand" fields, Clark's move means radical, long-lasting change.

Pipe fitters or poets?

Putting more emphasis on trades training is good and long overdue.

But that's because the BC Liberals' track record on trades training is disastrous, having set back critical apprenticeships in a wide range of occupations by a decade through political pandering to some business allies.

B.C.'s apprenticeship training completion rate is about 40 per cent, compared to Alberta's 78 per cent and the national average of 50 per cent.

Through my work with unions and businesses in natural resource extraction and construction, I know the negative results of that skilled trades shortage in many areas, and strongly support more training.

Clark's pledge to involve both unions and businesses in training decisions is a welcome change from ex-premier Gordon Campbell's refusal to consult labour.

But while LNG companies want very specifically trained workers, other employers say a generalized education gives them the flexibility needed for an ever-changing economy.

Jim McNerney, CEO of Boeing, said of the liberal arts in 2011: "Leadership is about the social and interpersonal skills that these disciplines teach. The breadth of the education experience is a primary source of leadership."

And a Harvard University professor who helped submit a report to Congress on whether government should support science and technology or the liberal arts was clear on the value of arts:

"Students should be prepared not just for their first job but for their fourth and fifth jobs, as there is little reason to doubt that people entering the workforce today will be called upon to play many different roles over the course of their careers," Annette Gordon-Reed said. "The ones who will do best in this new environment will be those whose educations have prepared them to be flexible."

In other words, educate both pipe fitters and poets.

The house always wins

B.C. shouldn't gamble with post-secondary education simply to provide workers for an unproven industry with an unclear future and an unknown commitment to job creation.

Of course, Clark disagrees. In February she said: "I think we should be making sure we are providing programming in our postsecondary institutions that provides people, young and old, with the promise and prospect of prosperity when they graduate."

Clark, who never graduated from university or earned a trade ticket herself, desperately wants her big LNG gamble to pay off -- and taxpayers have to hope it does, with our money on the table.

But when betting in a casino, remember that while you are sometimes dealt a great hand, in the end the house always wins.  [Tyee]

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