Mixing oil and water

On one side is a powerful environmental lobby that says stop shale gas development in New Brunswick. On the other is a powerful industrial lobby that says go for it. Can this province’s rookie government reconcile irreconcilable foes? And with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, what will the debate mean to a cash-strapped region of the Canadian energy outback?

Even by the acutely risk-averse standards of contemporary Canadian politics, New Brunswick Premier David Alward’s appetite for controversy is perishingly small. He’s no Danny Williams, thrashing Quebec over a decades-old power agreement. He’s no Frank McKenna, boldly charting his province’s future with jobs and businesses deliberately poached from other parts of the country. He’s not even Shawn Graham, the man he beat at the ballot box a year ago, who rode the rails to ruin on an aborted promise to sell off the major assets of NB Power for a cool four billion bucks.

No, speaking softly into the phone, selecting his words with exquisite care, the 52-year old Tory chieftain of the nation’s second-smallest – and, arguably, most economically endangered – province courts nothing more dramatic from citizens than the peaceful, easy feelings a sturdy status quo bequests. His tone becomes especially dulcet when the conversation turns to the increasingly touchy subject of shale gas development in New Brunswick, as it frequently does these days. “Certainly there are some flashpoint areas that we see we need to address by moving forward with a robust regulatory regime to mitigate the risk that people are feeling,” he says. “This is healthy for the company that’s doing the development work, for the communities and for the landowners.”

It’s a perfectly reasonable assessment from a perfectly reasonable man, whose avuncular style and family-values veneer has made him, in less than 12 months, one of the most popular premiers in the province’s modern history. But circumstances here have a tendency to become unreasonable overnight, especially where energy is concerned. And nothing, apart from deep-sea ocean drilling, has proven more controversial over the past decade than the shale gas industry, which, depending on who you consult, has either lifted scores of North Americans from poverty or irreparably damaged the environment. New Brunswick is only the most recent battleground in what has shaped up to be an ideological war of words between irreconcilable foes.

In one camp, community activists and environmental groups insist that the process of blasting sedimentary layers of shale deep beneath the earth’s surface with vast amounts of water and chemicals – a process called hydraulic fracturing, or “hydrofracking” (see diagram on page 3 of this article) – has cost countless homeowners and bystanders their health, livelihoods and land. Poisoned well water and ruined farms, they argue, are unacceptable consequences of industrial neglect and mismanagement. Indeed, Cornell University’s Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology, stipulates that shale gas is actually worse for the environment than coal. “The [hydraulic fracturing] process is moving ahead without ever really having had an adequate scientific basis of what the environmental consequences are,” he told the CBC in April. “That sort of analysis should have been done before this whole franking process was promoted.”

Opponents and critics also point to the bigger picture. In July, the David Suzuki Foundation and the Pembina Institute issued a joint report which concluded, among other things: “Natural gas contains less carbon than other fossil fuels, [but] fighting climate change requires the slower, not faster, addition of new natural gas production capacity.”

Added the study’s author, Matthew Bramley: “The evidence is strong that Canada should be focusing not on natural gas but on zero-emission solutions, such as renewable energy.”

In the other camp, drilling companies and their sympathizers dismiss these concerns as old news. They say technological advances in recent years have vastly improved the process, rendering it safe and environmentally responsible. What’s more, they point out, the industry is a critical tool in weaning the U.S. economy off overseas oil and is, therefore, a boon for natural gas exporters in Canada. And they, too, have a bigger picture to promote.

Since the early part of the last decade, shale reserves – which now account for about 20 per cent of all natural gas in the United States – have driven economic development in some of the poorest regions of the country. According to one report, the Barnett field in northern Texas will create more than 100,000 jobs annually over the next five years. In West Virginia, one of six states that share the 150,000-square-kilometre Marcellus field, drilling has generated nearly $400 million for the economy, $70 million in tax revenue, and upwards of 2,000 jobs.

All of which puts New Brunswick’s legislators in an increasingly awkward position. They know the economic potential for the province is enormous. Though the industry is still in its infancy, two companies – Corridor Resources, a junior exploration company based in Halifax, and Southwestern Energy, an American firm – have had promising results with their exploratory operations. Various fields within the southerly located Frederick Brook play, where third-party assessments have estimated 67 trillion cubic feet of recoverable resource, are particularly auspicious.

Should these activities fully commercialize in two or three years, the benefit to New Brunswick would be measured in hundreds of millions of dollars in direct and indirect revenue annually and likely thousands of jobs. Given the size of the provincial debt and deficit (estimated at $9 billion and $800 million, respectively) and persistent stagnation in other sectors of the economy, the promise of shale gas is nothing to take lightly. “It’s speculation, of course,” says Energy Minister Craig Leonard, “but if the industry moves ahead, the numbers that have been raised are anywhere from $150 million at the low end to $400 million at the high end.”

Still, he and his cabinet colleagues also know that local opposition to the industry is growing, emboldened, perhaps, by recent moves in France, Quebec, South Africa, Nova Scotia and New Jersey to either ban or slap moratoriums on hydrofracking. In an open letter to Premier Alward in June, Armand Paul, a spokesperson for the Penniac Anti-Shale Gas Organization, declared: “The personal risks are too great. Reassurances by your ministers of environment and natural resources, saying that your government is taking a slow and careful look at the options, don’t wash. A bad decision made after slow and careful consideration is even worse than one made as an uninformed blunder. When the problems begin, we will know that you saw it coming and made a conscious decision to place New Brunswickers in harm’s way, to choose profits over people.”

Another who adamantly opposes the industry’s development in the province is David Coon, executive director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick. “We have a moral obligation to do no harm,” he says. “It is our view that the impact of this on rural communities, on water, is unacceptable. On this basis, alone, we shouldn’t be going down this road. Beyond this, though, we have an abundance of renewable energy in New Brunswick both for heating and electricity. We need to be mapping a strategy that builds on what we’ve already done in this area. We shouldn’t be developing more sources of fossil fuel. We need to be making the transition to renewable energy.”

To be fair, the premier and his ministers are taking every measure to address both environmental and industrial concerns. In late June, they issued new guidelines directing shale gas development over the next couple of years. “Under these requirements,” a government statement clarified, “oil and natural gas companies who want to engage in exploration, development and production will have to conduct baseline testing on all potable water wells within a minimum distance of 200 metres of seismic testing and 500 metres of drilling [sites] before operations can begin.”

They must also “provide full disclosure of all proposed, and actual, contents of all fluids and chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process; and establish a security bond to protect property owners from industrial accidents, including the loss or contamination of drinking water.”

Will it be enough? A true public relations debacle needs only three ingredients: a perceived and imminent threat to people’s well-being where they live and work; a trunkload of complicated, technical and conflicting information about the dimension of that threat; and a group of firebrands determined to cleave to their versions of reality regardless of the actual and inconvenient facts at their disposal.

When expectations become unmanageable, despite all circumspection, controversy inevitably flows. And there’s nothing much the soft-spoken, broadly reasonable David Alward can do about that.

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