The news that Brazilian miner Vale is putting its multibillion-dollar potash mine on hold has sent a little ripple of concern across the brows of various Saskatchewan boosters.
It also reminds me of the ongoing dialogue between Captain Nemo and his hostage Pierre Arronax in Jules Verne’s classic novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Nemo’s futuristic submarine Nautilus encounters everything from giant squids to sub-surface volcanoes, which the captain coolly dismisses as mere “incidents,” not the more severe “accidents.”
Eventually though, the Nautilus is sucked into the giant Moskenstraumen, or Maelstrom, off the coast of Norway, and even Nemo is forced to admit he’s in the middle of an unfolding accident.
So what do we have here, “incident” or “accident”? The optimistic “incident” crowd sees the Vale decision as a minor delay, and expresses confidence that the Kronau potash mine will be built, thousands will be employed and Saskaboom will continue.
But there’s an “accident” contingent, too, as a few brave, quavering voices wonder aloud if this pullback means the end of the resource boom that has fuelled this province’s uncharacteristic growth over the last six years.
If this was the only sign, it would be different, but Potash Corp. is shutting down operations at its Lanigan mine for a month beginning Sept. 15, and booster knickers will really be in a knot if BHP Billiton delays the construction of a mine near Jansen, between Saskatoon and Yorkston, as is rumoured.
It’s not all that comforting that Economy Minister Bill Boyd has felt the need to go out of his way to reassure us that the Jansen mine, which would be the world’s largest, looks good to go. The reeve of Lajord, which includes Kronau, thought everything was OK with the Vale project, until it wasn’t.
This is what happens when your economy is commodity dependent, and global supply and demand govern your prosperity. It’s like Joseph’s amazing technicolor dream — seven years of feast and seven years of famine — the trick is to put something aside from the feast to tide you over during the famine. Sadly, that only seems to happen in ancient biblical manuscripts.
Times such as these are disturbing, but the anxiety can be tempered by opportunity. The Kronau mine would use 40 million litres of water a day, which is a problem because Kronau, blessed as it is with potash, is a bit short on H2O and the mine plan calls for a 70-kilometre pipeline to suck the water out of Katepwa Lake.
So, while it might be the harbinger of doom for Saskaboom, the Vale decision also gives us a time-out to think about something that’s as least as important as economic prosperity: Where does the water come from, anyway?