Setting the shale gas context

I promise I am not going to turn this blog into cheer leading for shale gas development.  However, it is a potentially important industry and the question that those for and against need to answer is “why not New Brunswick”.   Shale gas is being extracted in over a dozen US states and two Canadian provinces and there are plans to double the number of jurisdictions in the next few years.  So the question is why not here?   If there is a good set of regulations and provisions that flow some of the revenue back to the local communities, why not here?  Is there something about our land or rocks or density of residential spaces?  Is there some other unique reason that we would turn away our share of this industry?

And to the media, I ask them to set context.  I worry that sometimes we in the media debate these issues as if it was Angelina Jolie deciding what colour dress to wear to the Oscars.  It’s a fierce debate blue or red but in the end it means nothing.  With these big files, it means a lot.   Poll after poll in western Canada shows massive majority support for oil and gas exploration – because the public has a direct understanding of how that industry impacts their communities and their society.

The public here need to be subjected to thoughtful media on this important subject because, quite frankly, in an era of “no uranium mine” and “save our NB Power”, I think a government could be brought down over shale gas.  It seems quite easy to whip up public anger over these types of flash point issues.

I suspect, but hope I am wrong, the Liberals will try to make this an election issue.  A shame, really.

4 thoughts on “Setting the shale gas context

  1. There’s more than just the Liberals and Conservatives in New Brunswick. I could easily imagine the New Democrats making gains opposing shale gas exploration should both Liberals and Conservatives support it. Part of the calculation the Liberals will be making is whether the NDP is strong enough to make Liberal support for exploration come back and bite them.

    For my own part, while I can see the benefits of oil and gas exploration (I did, after all, live in Alberta for 17 years) I can also see the risks. We will always be assured that the technology is perfectly safe, but what that means in practice is ‘safe to a certain degree of precision’, where this can be precisely defined as the financial risk posed by failure as compared to the cost of more stringent measures. For the oil industry, it’s a financial calculation, not a political calculation; people know this, and that’s what makes political support politically risky.

    So to be clear: support for exploration (and presumably, extraction, without which there would be no point to exploration) is support for the economic development the industry provides despite the risks. Reassurances won’t make the risks go away; support therefore entails embracing the risks. So the province (and/or the Liberals, in opposition) need to be clear about the *political* calculation that will be undertaken around the risks: how much more over financial expediency will the exploration companies have to commit, how much more over that calculation will the province cover?

    The good side of it is, fracking isn’t particularly risky. Goodness, we could be talking about sour gas, offshore drilling or oil sands, things that entail real risk. The worst that could happen is that some wells go dry, or lose their quality. The political calculation balances the cost of replacement reliable water supply minus the contribution toward that risk economically viable for the exploration company. Given good baseline measurements (underway now) this risk should be assumable.

    So: the Liberals and New Democrats should logically come out with much the same stance, silent publicly on support for the exploration, supportive in the back room, willing to offer financial support (but not beyond what potential royalties would reimburse), and visibly vocal on the need for clearly defined measures to protect New Brunswickers in the event that the long shot comes in and the water supply is disrupted. The Tories, meanwhile, tke the public risk of supporting the project, but reap the political reward if everything goes well, which is (to my estimation) better than even money.

    Sound political calculations all round, and ones that would provide us with a gas industry, if there is one to be had.

  2. It’s an interesting attitude that we have that things will inevitably go wrong and we (NB’ers) will get fleeced by the big corps. Maybe it is this defeatist thing that harper labelled us as. To be fair, the track record may suggest this.

    I am from a new generation of NB’ers that would like to see NB’ers take the approach that NB could be a world leading example of how shale gas can work effectively for the province, the community and have limited impact on the environment. That is another important “why not New Brunswick” question that we need to ask. We have tremendous Geological brain trust in NB’s Universities. Why can’t NB become the Shale Gas example of the future. A truly smart person not only learns from his mistakes but more so from the mistakes of others. We have done this in the past with the forestry sector in the sense that NB have amongst the best forestry practises in the world, Forestry related college and University courses that are world class. It can be done but we have to change how we look at the opportunity. Let’s learn what not to do from the bad things that have happened in the past to others but let’s not let that be the reason why we turn down this opportunity. Clearly, I don’t want folks in the Moncton-riverview-sussex-gas belt regions of NB to be able to light their water on fire but we need to take this opportunity and see it as a tremendous opportunity to do something great.

  3. The ‘why not NB’ comes down to what was said above about forestry. Forestry in NB is hardly ‘world class’, nobody from the international community looks at many programs in NB, with the ‘possible’ exception of the Fundy Model Forest, but even that pales when considering forestry practices in europe.

    As we know, the allowable cut has been scaled back because the trees are not replenishing quickly enough-and people in the resource sector KNOW this. We live in an ‘anti government’ age, so people instinctively do not trust government to protect their interests.

    That NB will become a ‘best practices’ kind of place is ludicrous, and the population knows it, and it has NOTHING to do with a ‘defeatist attitude’. I should also mention that the west is FAR from the monolithic cheerleader of oil and gas that they are commonly portrayed, far from it. Like NB, there is a corporate monopoly owning the media, so we simply hear no other voices.

    But I think its a little early to be talking about what party is going to make which issue an election issue. I doubt they will out and out oppose it, given that they didn’t do so while in government.

    But again, the ‘worst case scenario’ is not one that one thinks. Lots of people oppose development for very good reason, and you can go do some research on Arkansas and find some very real consequences to the industry becoming successful, let alone fail.
    And like I said before, people are justified in suspecting a government that comes out saying they have new rules for drilling, and then later that same day saying those rules have existed for years. It’s pretty tough to have faith in people who don’t seem to know what they are doing to protect your interests.

  4. “Poll after poll in western Canada shows massive majority support for oil and gas exploration – because the public has a direct understanding of how that industry impacts their communities and their society.”

    Westerners have the advantage of seeing the economic benefits of energy extraction. Perhaps they have not looked closely enough at the downside, but the benefits (which no doubt outweigh those downsides) are certainly obvious. Yes, there seems to be a growing unease over certain oil sands and sour gas practices, but it seems to be increased regulation that is being sought, not a ban. I wonder if that growing unease is a consequence of a wealthy middle class? In NB, it seems the movement to stop shale gas is being led by the comfy class; all others can move to AB.

    Is it ironic that quite of few of those Westerners who support the energy developments there are from the Maritimes? Perhaps NB should do what some nations do, and allow the ex-pats to vote in provincial elections :).

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