A serious economic crisis for many B.C. industries, high unemployment and a budget crisis for the government itself — the Liberal government’s economic woes (and ours) are well-known. With Finance Minister Gary Collins setting records for deficit, debt and unemployment, will a major Glen Clark initiative from the 1990s save the Liberals from themselves?

Alone among B.C. industries, the oil and gas sector is booming. High natural gas prices are driving a drilling and exploration growth, particularly in that part of B.C. east of the Rockies, the Peace River country. In the Finance Ministry’s quarterly economic statement, it was estimated that natural gas revenues would raise $246 million more than predicted in the minister’s February budget.

Even this revised statement grossly underestimates expected revenues for this year as natural gas prices continue to dramatically exceed expectations.

On September 10, the province’s sale of petroleum and natural gas rights set a monthly record of $418 million. Of that, $407 million came from one company, Encana, which purchased 25 parcels between Dawson Creek and Tumbler Ridge.

Oil and gas will deliver more direct revenue to provincial coffers than the forest industry — a first in B.C. history. And while this is largely due to international market conditions, the oil and gas exploration and production boom was triggered by a new and comprehensive economic strategy for the sector, negotiated in 1997-98 and implemented in 1998 and 1999 by the previous NDP government.

The NDP government’s oil and gas strategy contained five key elements. A negotiated agreement with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers linked to new wells brought substantial investment to the region, which has grown as natural prices have risen. The government created a new Crown corporation, the Oil and Gas Commission, to create a single-window regulatory system that streamlined the approval process.

Negotiations with environmentalists, industry and the community led to the creation of the Muskwa-Kechika (Northern Rockies) protected area and the resolution of other land-use disputes. The commission itself directly supports green initiatives as part of its mandate. And the government, under the energetic direction of the minister, Dan Miller, and a public servant, Cheryl Brooks, worked to resolve outstanding issues with First Nations.

Finally, the provincial government, through the Oil and Gas Commission, negotiated a “fair share” agreement with the Peace River Regional District to share $113.5 million in resource revenues with local governments in the region over 10 years.

“Fair share” provided critical support for municipalities such as DawsonCreek and Fort St. John, to benefit directly from the economic growth in the resource sector; deal with the increased municipal costs caused by economic growth outside city boundaries and ensured that local residents would share in the revenue benefits of new development.

Thus, a policy that focused on a single sector and region and brought together the province, business, environmentalists, aboriginal people and local governments has achieved astonishing success.

And, how ironic that the result of all that work is record revenue to the current government and a major assist in their attempts to solve the fiscal crisis created by the 2001 and 2002 Liberal budgets.

Premier Gordon Campbell does not appear ready to credit the NDP approach of a targeted strategy focusing on the unique issues in a sector or adopt it for other industries. Every reference to the previous government’s oil and gas initiatives appear to have been deleted from the government’s Web site, as if our all-powerful Liberal governing majority has decreed “the end of history.”

The government has been quick to crow about recent industry successes with the premier claiming that record oil and gas sales are “a powerful indication that the tax, regulatory and land-use reforms we’ve made are working.”

The Liberal government has made some small changes to the NDP strategy, mostly new royalty cuts for investment. However, the continuing oil and gas boom has virtually nothing to do with the across-the-board corporate and personal income tax cuts that have caused the government’s revenue crisis. The direct benefits of these tax changes principally went to the Lower Mainland.

For example, the average income tax cut in West Vancouver or the premier’s(Vancouver-Point Grey) riding was four times greater than the average tax cut in Dawson Creek. In the Peace, increases in medical services premiums and other fee and tax increases have virtually wiped out any benefit from the tax changes.

The former NDP government’s oil and gas strategy is the opposite of theLiberal government’s scatter-gun approach to economic policy.

Instead of giving away tax breaks to the wealthy and businesses, with no strings attached, and seeing investment leave the province, the oil and gas strategy linked royalty changes with specific employment, investment and environmental targets, and benefits.

It involved all the players, not just the friends of the government. And it has paid dividends for the province and its economic future.