Category Archives: Oil and Gas

The roiling tale of two imaginary pipelines

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In one hand, New Brunswick grips the key to its putative economic salvation; a pipeline spanning the better part of the second-largest landmass on the planet, from the oil fields and tar sands of Alberta right into little, old, plucky Saint John where the Irving refinery awaits, with bated breath, another profitable lease on life.

In the other, the picture-perfect province loosens it grip on everything its forebears allegedly designed (a healthy, self-sufficient, environmentally pristine part of the world) in the backwash of a curtailed and stolen future; a pipeline that would foul the ground, incinerate communities and spoil the water; a horrible industrial project that would return fleeting boons to short-term-thinking politicians, their confederates in commerce and not much else.

It’s odd how deliberately these opposing views manage to express themselves in New Brunswick’s print and broadcast media – as if never the twain shall meet, as if we, the sidelined majority, have nothing useful to lend to the debate over the province’s energy providence except, of course, our taxes and (sigh) our ears.

“Putative” and “alleged” are good words to describe the cases for and against a pipeline that does not, in fact, yet exist.

There are, of course, several ways to build a permanent way into a community. None of these, however, should have anything to do with terrorizing the citizenry or fictionalizing the landscape.

When Colleen Mitchell, president of Atlantica Centre for Energy, boosts on the front page of the Saint John Telegraph-Journal the benefits of an East Coast pipeline (without, I will note, a word of reasonable rebuttal), her kite flew so low, her hot air claimed its tail. She both terrorized the citizenry and fictionalized the landscape.

Here she is on her extraordinarily well-written rant:

“Five years (after the Great Recession of 2008) the gap between Atlantic Canada and the rest of Canada remains significant. . .The development of key oil and gas projects have the potential to reverse these economic trends. . .This project (TransCanada’s East Energy pipeline) is of such significance that if it proceeds to completion it will have a profound impact on the Atlantic region”

So profound, she says, it could amount to $35.3-billion in new gross domestic product across the country. So profound, she says, it could result in $266 million in new taxes to New Brunswick (during pipefitting) and maybe as much as $500 million after that. Moreover, she claimed with the sort of authority only an insider gets (and, trust me, she’s no insider), Irving Oil might just well spend upwards of $2 billion upgrading its coking and refining facilities in Saint John.

Oh, really?

This is irresponsible, unverified piffle; its feedstock derives directly from industry, itself. There is no way to credibly measure the merits of her assessments, just as there is no way to calibrate the real value of what she parrots are vast reserves of trapped shale gas in New Brunswick sedimentary rock. Why? Because industry, itself, is still reckoning the commercial viability of the resource. And, frankly, they’re not talking (which, in and of itself, should tell us something).

Still, she’s not the only partisan in the arena. Bid a welcome to the died-in-the-wool naysayers, who would rather buy their hemp oil from The Body Shop than see any of the dirty, necessary stuff that fuels their spectacularly energy-efficient homes spoil their golf-course-sized and well-fertilized lawns and gardens splendidly attended by certified “green” landscapers.

TransCanada Corp. has run afoul of four of nine National Energy Board regulations regarding its proper care and feeding of pipelines. This motivates New Brunswick Green Party honcho David Coon to theorize that “anything that suggests an increased risk of leaks will make everyone nervous.”

Furthermore, he postulates, “Since Stephen Harper has been prime minister, his orientation has been to ensure the National Energy Board is greasing the wheels of pipeline construction, not slowing it down because of things like safety and environmental impact.”

In other words, he seems to be saying, since the National Energy Board is, ipso facto, already compromised by the Conservative agenda, we must assume that its recent “harsh” judgement of TransCanada Corp. actually amounts  kid gloves’ treatment.

Again, so much for empirical evidence.

In one hand, the conspiracy theorists taketh away.

In the other, the apologists giveth back.

And, finally, no hands actually come together.

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Catching the Tories in Bambi’s headlights

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Canada’s freshly cobbled Finance Minister Jim Flaherty says that the nation’s laws oughtn’t transform charitable foundations, which pay virtually no income taxes, into shelter accounts for fraudsters, money-launderers, terrorists, and organized criminals.

To which, the proper response might be: “Well, duh.”

In advance of today’s federal budget, Mr. Flaherty – his new shoes dutifully acquired from Toronto’s Mellow Walk Footwear – declared to media, “There are some terrorist organizations, there are some organized crime organizations, that launder money through charities and that make donations to charities and that’s not the purpose of charitable donations in Canada. We are being increasingly strict on the subject.”

What’s more, he said, “If the critics of the government (policy to close the apparent loophole) are terrorist organizations and organized crime, I don’t care.”

Sure, but that’s not really the nontaxable sixty-four-thousand dollar question.

If it were, then citizens of this country would have every right to demand what, exactly, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and Communications Security Establishment Canada – not to speak of America’s Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency and the co-dependent operations of Britain’s Secret Intelligent Service – have been doing in the authentic age of surveillance.

I mean, are we or aren’t we fully, bloodily and bodily exposed? And if the critics of the government are, in fact, terrorist organizations, then shouldn’t our “friendly” spies and spooks care rather deeply, even if our finance minister does not?

No, this is not about terrorists or money launderers or organized criminals. This is about that hemp-clad, plackard-waving, fossil-fuel hating, trust-fund baby boomer (and his millennial acolytes) who has roundly peeved Conservative office-holders, lo these many years.

According to the Toronto Star and other news organizations, the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) is systematically auditing environmental charities that continue to make a connection between fossil fuel production in Alberta and global warming.

It wants to know whether the organizations – Pembina Foundation, David Suzuki Foundation, Tides Canada and Environmental Defence, among others – are running afoul of the 10 per cent rule, which refers to the percentage of a charity’s time and money that may be spent on political or advocacy work as long as the activities are non-partisan in nature (that is, not aligned to particular parties).

John Bennett of the Sierra Club of Canada calls this “a war against the sector.”  Marcel Lauzière of Imagine Canada laments the “big chill out there with what charities can and cannot do.”

All of which may be true, but CRA’s government-sanction audits illustrate, if nothing else, that the sector has struck a nerve in Ottawa. Who knew that Bambi’s tree-hugger brigade would scare the scat out of the establishment fat cats in Ottawa?

In fact, it’s been a pretty good past couple of years for environmental groups bent on countering the federal government’s fondness for the oil sands. The effects of coordinated and aggressive publicity campaigns are especially noticeable in the United States, where the Obama administration continues to drag its feet on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

One recent poll by USA Today indicates that only a slight majority of Americans surveyed supported imports of oil sands crude from Alberta. “About 56 per cent say they favor the northern leg of the billion-dollar, Canada-to-U.S. project and 41 per cent oppose it, according to the poll of 801 U.S. adults completed last month by Stanford University and Resources for the Future (RFF), a non-partisan research group,” the newspaper reported last month.

Still, any government that deliberately targets for censure organizations with which it doesn’t agree, and whose growing influence it fears, runs a perilously close risk of trampling on some very hallowed democratic ground.

After all, if you name your organization “Environmental Defence”, apply for and receive charitable status, do you not also assume that your right to criticize official policy   on said environment is protected?

And what utter nonsense is the 10 per cent rule, anyway. All charities fill the gaps in the public and private sector’s attention to social detail. They exist to do precisely what their critics and detractors revile: advocate.

By all means, go after the evil-dowers who distort our charities for larcenous ends. But for the rest of the sector, let’s holster our six guns.

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The stiff upper lip to success

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New Brunswick’s estimable finance minister, Blaine Higgs, promises as a matter of course that he will announce no new tax hikes at next month’s grand budget reveal. To which we curtsy politely and thank the graveyard of foreboding that dominates Fredericton for small mercies.

Still, at this stage in the daily, grinding, “this-too-shall-pass” culture of what is, indisputably, Canada’s least economically promising province, higher taxes will serve precisely no purpose.

The time for a boost in the HST was four years ago. Today, when a precipitous drop in revenue to government coffers is related entirely to a concomitant decline in business income, the taxman’s various dogs just won’t hunt anymore.

Meanwhile, the list of likely economic saviors grows ever longer, even as it begins to blur the boundaries of credibility.

There is a pipeline into Saint John. It will, we are assured, bring Alberta oil into the Port City for refining and subsequent export to locales both exotic and mundane. In the process, it will employ hundreds of skilled and able-bodied men and women (thousands during the construction phase). At least, that’s the scuttlebutt. Boosters are still looking for the project’s starter pistol, which seems to have gone missing.

There is some fresh promise in the mining sector, no thanks to The Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan which, according to a CBC report in early December,  “issued a blow to one of the Alward government’s hopes for job creation in the province.

The company is laying off more than 1,000 people, including 130 in New Brunswick, due to what it describes as slumping demand for its potash and phosphates, which are used to make fertilizer. . .Just last week the provincial government issued a request for expression of interest to explore for and mine potash in New Brunswick.”

Of course, there is always (groan!) shale gas. In fact, there might be 70 trillion cubic feet of the stuff below ground in New Brunswick. If any of it is extractable in a commercially viable sort of way (that is, before oil and gas prices wobble too far into the red zone), then a new fossil fuel industry could create hundreds of jobs and top up the government’s bank account with new taxes and royalties.

On the other hand, there is the little matter of the screaming meemies to which the chronically anxious among us succumb whenever the phrases “government oversight” and “hydraulic fracturing” appear in the same sentence.

It appears that the rest of us are fated to follow their lead as it is embraced by the next premier of the province, Brian Gallant, who has already announced his planned moratorium on further shale gas development once he trundles into power this fall.

And yet, somewhere, in all of this, we’re missing something vital, and it’s getting us down. Behind every commercial and industrial project – large, like a pipeline; or small, like a high-tech joint venture – are people.

That may sound trite, but our tendency is to perceive our economy as intractably composed of forces that are largely beyond our control. This is the language we allow our political leaders to adopt when times are tough and they shrug their shoulders in defeat: “Hey. . .Whaddya gonna do?”

In most cases, the answer to that question is: “Plenty.”

New Brunswick’s future might look rosier than it presently does if mega-deals for oil and gas and other natural resources were firmly on track. Still, this is not the alpha and omega of the province’s potential.

The real, durable future is being written in the idea factories of the private sector, in the common markets of the province’s small cities and feeder towns and villages, on the entrepreneurial front lines where problems are things you solve and obstacles are things you hurdle.

Listen closely, and you will still hear the relentless hum of enterprise, which remains happily oblivious to the macroeconomic demons that torture the province’s elected leaders, appointed officials and, as often as not, professional chatterers like Yours Truly.

If, as one of my colleagues in arms recently claimed, GDP is two-thirds consumer confidence, then attitude is everything.

Perhaps, then, we should try stiffening our lips and, for once, whistle obstinately past that graveyard of foreboding.

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How Neil Young gets it right (and wrong) on oil

Oil is everywhere and everything?

Oil is everywhere and everything?

Fossil fuels make hypocrites of every environmental activist in the world.

The bright ones know that as consumers in the unavoidable petro-economy, they are just as culpable as anyone for climate change; but they push their planet-saving agenda anyway. After all, why remain silent on strategies for using oil and gas to transition to a cleaner, more sustainable future?

The dimmer ones, who never seem to suffer from a loss of words, prattle on about “us versus them” in apparent ignorance of the enormously complex socio-economic web this and other nations have spun with the products of refined dinosaur bones. Forget transforming the world; let’s just shut it down.

Thanks to celebrity big mouths and the media’s even bigger appetite for controversy, the question of the moment is: Into which camp does Canada’s legendary folk-rocker Neil Young fit? Is he a shining light or a broken bulb? A not entirely unrelated question is: Does it matter?

The Prime Minister Office seems to think it does. Why, otherwise, would it have dispatched its spokesman Jason MacDonald to defend Alberta’s curiously vulnerable tar sands against Mr. Young’s vituperative attack on them last Sunday night during the launch of a countrywide tour. At that time, the Grammy Award winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer said, using his outside voice:

“To me, it’s a basic matter of integrity on the part of Canada. Canada is trading integrity for money. That’s what’s happening under the current leadership in Canada, which is a very poor imitation of the George Bush administration in the United States. It’s lagging behind on the world stage and it’s an embarrassment to Canadians.”

To which, Mr. MacDonald responded: “Canada’s natural resources sector is and has always been a fundamental part of our country’s economy. . .The resource sector creates economic opportunities, and employs tens of thousands of Canadians in high wage jobs, contributing to a standard of living that is envied around the world, and helping to fund the programs and services Canadians rely on. . .Even the lifestyle of a rock star relies, to some degree, on the resources developed by thousands of hard-working Canadians every day.”

For Mr. Young, overall, so far so good. Whether or not you agree with his characterization of political leaders who are almost giddy at the prospect of selling their country – and First Nations communities in Alberta – down the river for a bag of bucks, you must, at least, acknowledge that he takes a principled stand.

More than this, perhaps, he is keenly aware of his stature, an effective weapon in the public relations battle to win friends and influence people (though methinks the man has already won enough hearts and minds for one life).

But, then, a funny thing happens on Mr. Young’s way to mainstream credibility regarding oil and gas. In his response to Mr. MacDonald’s jab about rock stars‘ reliance on natural resources, “Shaky” gets a little. . .well, shaky.

“Of course, rock stars don’t need oil. I drove my electric car from California to the tar sands and on to Washington DC without using any oil at all and I’m a rock star,” he says. “My car’s generator runs on biomass, one of several future fuels Canada should be developing for the Post Fossil Fuel Age. This age of renewable fuels could save our grandchildren from the ravages of Climate related disasters spawned by the Fossil Fuel Age; but we have to get started.”

He’s right. We do have to get started. But if, as he insists, rock stars don’t need oil, is he suggesting his life is a petroleum-free zone? For, if it is, that would be a neat trick, indeed.

According to one calculation from Ranken Energy Corp., “Americans consume petroleum products at a rate of three-and-a-half gallons of oil and more than 250 cubic feet of natural gas per day each.”

In fact, oil is in just about everything, from floor wax to bicycle tires to golf bags and purses. “Anything that’s not iron or steel or metal of some sort has some petrochemical component,” West Virginia University chemistry professor Dady Dadyburjor told The Associated Press not long ago.

This, one presumes, includes the chassis of Mr. Young’s electric car.

Of course rock stars need oil. We all do. And owning up to our collective addiction is the first step on the royal road to recovery from hypocrisy.

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2013: The year of treading water

U.S. economy may be heading for a hard, post-election landing

N.B. economy is heading for a repeat of 2013. . .only worse

New Brunswick enters the new year much as it did the outgoing one: Treading shark-infested waters, praying that the mighty predators will ignore it in favour of fatter, tastier castaways.

Under the grim circumstances, it’s a miracle that the government of David Alward was able to accomplish the little it did.

In 2013, population growth was at a standstill, general unemployment was among the worst in Canada (especially among what remains of the youthful labour force), the participation rate (those actively searching for work) was in a nose dive. About the only bright spot was low inflation and a relatively fixed consumer price index (measured in 2002 dollars).

Worse, perhaps, than any of this was the evident lack of new economic opportunities, without which the annual provincial deficit was fated to hover at $500 million on a structural, long-term debt of at least $11 billion in perpetuity. Theoretically, that meant that every New Brunswicker was on the hook for thousands of dollars.

The reality was that fewer public services were available to a dwindling number of people. And in the absence of any real vision for the future – any sense that timely sacrifices will ultimately yield durable boons – the province descended into caterwauling and complaining.

Some, of course, did their best to reverse the tide of bitterness and recrimination, while acknowledging the patently obvious.

“What we are facing in New Brunswick is a structural, secular decline,” former premier and current deputy chairman of T-D Bank Frank McKenna told me one wintery afternoon in his downtown Toronto office. “The problems we have don’t ebb and flow with the quality of our leadership. There is something more serious going on here. We face circumstances that combine to create a very negative outlook. The entire atmosphere is hugely challenging.”

In fact, he said, “the resource base that remains can be exploited with fewer workers and more mechanization, so it can’t support the number of workers that it once did. Yet, we remain a resource-based economy in a world where the Canadian dollar looks to be in a fairly constant state of parity with the U.S. dollar. So, this, too, is a peril.”

And yet, he said, “Even though I think our situation in New Brunswick is quite pessimistic, I don’t think that it is terminal. There are many places in the world that have faced dramatic challenges. In fact, adversity, itself, became the platform upon which they built sustainable economies. . . This isn’t just a problem of leadership in government. It’s also a problem of followership.

“Our citizens have to understand the full depth and breadth of the dilemma that we are facing, and they have to be prepared to face up to some inconvenient truths. It means that they have to become less reliant on government and more entrepreneurial. It means that they have to take responsibility for their own futures.”

For Mr. McKenna and, indeed, Mr. Alward, taking responsibility for the future means brining Alberta oil east for refining in Saint John – which would create thousands of construction jobs – and developing the province’s nascent shale gas industry.

“The way I look at it,” Mr. McKenna said, “the real win comes when we take our indigenous shale gas in the province and hook it into the Canaport liquified natural gas (LNG) facility in Saint John.”

His voice rose as his enthusiasm peaked. “We have in situ now, calculated by Corridor Resources Inc., 67 trillion cubic feet of gas. That’s bigger than western Canada. It’s a huge deposit. If ten per cent is exploitable, that’s enough to create a revenue source for New Brunswick for decades to come. All in, it would result in about $15-20 billion in investment and 150,000 person years of work. And for governments, it would result in between $7-9 billion worth of royalties and taxes.”

By and large, however, these were mere musings of a former public official. They did little to quell the outrage of a vocal minority of residents – people who firmly believed the provincial government had no business encouraging the development of an industry that they said would poison them.

Would it poison them? Was there, instead, a safe, environmentally responsible approach to the whole affair?

The issue will carry forward into 2014 and, like just about every other issue in New Brunswick, remain there unresolved, as the sharks keep circling.

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The political art of fomenting depression

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What’s perplexing about the David Alward government’s decision to spend a few thousand taxpayer bucks on TV ads showing New Brunswickers mourning the state of their province’s economy is not that it reflects poorly on our lawmakers’ vision of the future.

What’s perplexing is that our lawmakers seem to believe it reflects well on their own political fortunes.

Less than a year before the general election, the Tories are bringing up the rear in popular opinion. Poll after poll suggests that if the ballot were held today, they’d lose to Brian Gallant’s Liberals by a wide margin.

This somehow impels the big brains who occupy the small offices reserved for government communications to remind New Brunswickers in convincing fashion, and just before the holidays, that the past three-plus years in office have been an unmitigated disaster for the Progressive Conservatives.

The ads show various men and women, who are presumably en route to the oil-black and money-green pastures of western Canada, hanging out on tarmacks and in airport departure lounges, their brows appropriately furrowed.

“I’ve been going for four years,” says one.

“We haven’t got enough opportunities here, we have to go do it out west,” says another.

Finally, up pops the kicker, accompanied by a stern-sounding VoiceOver: “This message is brought to you by the Government of New Brunswick.”

Now, we witness the game, if untried, Mr. Gallant mumbling under his breath and, indeed, over it: “Thank you, Mr. Alward, you just made my day.”

Of course, in the local media, he sounds more like this:

“New Brunswickers don’t need an ad to tell them that there aren’t enough jobs in New Brunswick. This is an ad that is virtually discouraging people to stay and invest in New Brunswick. It’s even demoralizing.”

To which, Premier Alward retorts, “Every day there are families that are living with separation and we believe there are good options long term to see our economy be stronger, our province be stronger, and our people be able to decide to be here and build their communities here. . .It’s a message to all New Brunswickers that we need to be saying yes to allow development to take place.”

Well. . .no, actually.

It is a message to all New Brunswickers that they are at death’s doorstep, and that their only salvation is via the kool aid of shale gas development, which may or not be true. (It’s too early to know anything with certainty).

What I do know, from my years in the marketing communications and advertising industry (I call them my “lucrative” epoch), is that scaring the bejesus out of people is guaranteed to produce only one, durable response: shoot the messenger.

Again, Mr. Alward, Mr. Gallant thanks you.

What’s intriguing about all of this is just how unnecessary it is.

The Alward government holds all the cards in the shale gas industry deck. Its regulations for development are, purportedly, the toughest in North America. It has the benefit of knowing all the best and worst practices. It even has a scientific panel, convened to guide its decisions (though only The Almighty knows when this efficacious advice will be forthcoming).

What’s more, its foes on this file are, though vocal, largely in the minority.

If it truly wants to win the hearts and minds of the majority, why doesn’t it produce ads that speak directly to the issue – spots that fight the fictions swirling around shale gas with facts?

Why not emphasize the positive attributes of an industry that, properly regulated, could help transform the province’s economy – thanks to the money it will generate for public coffers – into an incubator of commercially viable innovations in sectors not specifically related to resource extraction?

Those who argue that the provincial government has no business using public dollars to promote its economic agenda are, among other things, on the wrong side of history. Governments do this sort of thing all the time. In fact, we expect it of them, especially when they don’t do it. What is tourism, except a giant public-sector promotion campaign?

This Tory reign has staked its mandate on transforming the New Brunswick economy through its responsible stewardship of natural resources. Its most recent ad campaign, however, indicates that it has not yet learned how best communicate this otherwise clear and simple message.

Meanwhile, as goes its mandate, so goes any chance New Brunswick has of seizing its future for its now-departing citizens.

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Cautionary tales from the oil rush

 

What goes up...well, you know

What goes up…well, you know

Forgotten somewhere behind the picket lines in rural New Brunswick, amid the gloomy certitudes about the oil and gas industry’s power to corrupt the environment, lies a more visceral byproduct of resource extraction: crimes not against nature, but humanity.

Canada’s violent offence rate is so low these days, few people associate lawlessness with mining and drilling operations anymore. History, of course, is replete with tales of banditry, thuggery and worse from the front lines and frontiers of assorted gold rushes and oil booms in North America.

There are, as Robert Service (the Arctic’s unofficial poet laureate) once wrote famously, “strange things done in the midnight sun, by the men who moil for gold.” Indeed, “the Arctic trails have their secret tales that would make your blood run cold.” Over the past year, however, such literary apocrypha has become reality in the border territories between western and Canada and the United States.

A New York Times piece, published on Sunday, describes recent disappearances and murders in the high plains of Montana and North Dakota. “Stories like these, once rare, have become as common as drilling rigs in rural towns at the heart of one of the nation’s richest oil booms,” the article reported. “Crime has soared as thousands of workers and rivers of cash have flowed into towns, straining police departments and shattering residents’ sense of safety.”

That observation echoed an earlier Times story in which “Christina Knapp and a friend were drinking shots at a bar in a nearby town several weeks ago when a table of about five men called them over and made an offer. They would pay the women $3,000 to strip naked and serve them beer at their house while they watched mixed martial arts fights on television. Ms. Knapp, 22, declined, but the men kept raising the offer, reaching $7,000. . .Prosecutors and the police note an increase in crimes against women, including domestic and sexual assaults.”

Regarding Canada, a piece in the Regina Leader-Post last April explained, “As the oil belt in southern Saskatchewan, North Dakota and Montana expands, police are grappling to deal with a resulting increase in crime. In our province, that means more traffic crime – specifically, more aggressive and impaired driving charges, as well as more fatal accidents. To address crime trends that have come about as a result of a population increase in the oilfield area, members of the Saskatchewan RCMP from the enforcement, intelligence and border security sections are in the midst of a two-day summit with their U.S. counterparts in Glasgow, Montana.”

Meanwhile, a story published on theatlanticcities.com last month observes that “in 2005, the Williston Police Department in Williston, North Dakota, received 3,796 calls for service. By 2009, the number of yearly calls had almost doubled, to 6,089. In 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, the Williston P.D. received 15,954 calls for service. . .The police department in nearby Watford City received 41 service calls in 2006. In 2011 they received 3,938. That’s life in an energy boomtown.”

Ask a dozen sociologists about the reasons for the phenomenon, and you’re likely to get a dozen different answers. But it seems clear that the word “boomtown” says it all: the uncontrolled explosion of opportunity generates unpredictable consequences – including roving bands of assorted misfits and bad guys – catching institutions, infrastructure and law enforcement off guard.

Here, in New Brunswick, of course, we don’t know much about any of this. The safety and serenity of our bucolic environs has as much to do with the fact that we export our criminals, as well as our law-abiding sons and daughters, out west.

But should the glint in Premier Alward’s eye – and that in those of at least 100 other political and business leaders in this province – ever manifest itself as a pipeline from Alberta into Saint John and/or a commercially viable, environmentally benign, shale gas industry proffering jobs and income, galore, we may want to remind ourselves about the social costs of overnight success.

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Institute’s mandate in search of a reason

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The last thing New Brunswick needs is yet another reason to bloviate about the provincial government’s diabolical plans to shove shale gas down the throats of its citizens. But for a polity that seems bound and determined to leave most of our natural resources in the ground, we do seem extraordinarily skilled at mass-producing hot air.

In an interview with CBC Radio out of Saint John last Thursday, Fred Metallic – a member of Listuguj First Nations in Quebec and a PhD in environmental science – explained why he suddenly quit the scientific advisory council of the New Brunswick Energy Institute, whose purpose is, according to its website, “to examine the science surrounding energy possibilities in our province.”

Declared Mr. Metallic: “When I was approached by the Institute. . .we were going to take a citizen-based approach to the development of energy. As a First Nations researcher, I generally work with people and (so) this was compatible with the way I like to approach (things). . .We did discuss aboriginal issues. However, these issues were not a priority, unfortunately. The priorities were more around the technology around shale gas development.”

What’s more, Mr. Metallic lamented, “At this point, the institute is more concerned about the government’s plans to develop shale gas and other forms of energy. It is more concerned about industry and whether industry and science can work together to ensure that these resources are developed safely. As First Nations researcher, I didn’t see First Nations issues to be central and that was a concern for me.

In the end, he said, “I have more faith in people to want to move things forward than I do with government, sometimes.”

Of course, that’s it in a nutshell. Isn’t it? Here is the cri de coeur of the modern age. And you don’t have to be a member of a First Nation to utter it.

Having little faith in governments is simply de rigueur these days, and not just for cultural warriors and libertarian trendsetters. Everyone – liberals, conservatives, radicals, reactionaries, progressives, the one per cent and the remaining 99 per cent – wants to thump his chest with one hand and with the other grab the nearest elected official by the scruff of his scrawny neck and declare: “You, sir, are a cad!”

But before we get caught up in this, the standard plot line, and cut and paste it to this, the latest chapter in the shale gas melodrama, it behooves us to recognize what, exactly, the New Brunswick Energy Institute actually does – which is, quite frankly, a whole lot of nothing.

“We feel that the institute is a scientific body,” Energy and Mines Minister Craig Leonard told the CBC last week as he gamely defended his government’s decision create it on the advice of departed and forcibly humbled academic Louis LaPierre. “The place for discussing treaty rights with First Nations is within government, itself. We want to keep those two separate.”

This is, of course, utter nonsense. The technology that enables shale gas drilling and the fracked ground that treaties may (or may not) protect as a collective resource (including the water therein) comprise a single issue.

But, the point is, the provincial government doesn’t appear to be enjoying much success on either of the issue’s constituent parts: nurturing scientific inquiry or ameliorating people’s concerns

In the case of the former, the number of “ongoing” research projects at the Institute number in the single digits, as in, zero. Ditto for the number of “requests for proposals”.

According to a Telegraph-Journal report last week, “Energy institute executive director Annie Daigle attempted to clarify the body’s mandate on Thursday, stating that its direction had been ‘muddied’ of late.”

She added: “Things sort of came to a standstill for a month and a half to two months. We haven’t developed any research, we haven’t signed any contracts or anything like that, and we haven’t put out the request for proposals for that work.

It is being reviewed by the scientific advisory council. We had some setbacks over the last couple of months, so we are just trying to get back on track.”

All of which suggests that if the provincial government is trying to shove shale gas down the throats of New Brunswickers, it isn’t yet relying on the Energy Institute for practical support.

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No room for pleasantries in real politics

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Despite his occasional partisan bluster – a necessity of elective office, regardless of one’s political flavour – the premier of New Brunswick is a genuinely nice guy who actually cares about other people’s feelings.

In fact, until recently, about the only way to get an authentic rise out of David Alward was to suggest the he and his government ministers were aloof to the concerns of their fellow citizens, content to play king and courtiers in their castle made of sand above the high water mark on Freddy Beach.

“It bugs me,” the pastor’s son (who is a certified psychological counsellor, a former community developer and an active rural hobby farmer) once interrupted himself in mid-interview with yours truly. “I don’t know how anyone could describe us as closed or uncommunicative or not inclusive.”

The truth, of course, is that openness has all but typified the premier’s political oeuvre since he came to govern one of Canada’s defiantly ungovernable provinces in 2010. Where his predecessor, Liberal Premier Shawn Graham, protected his counsel like a NSA agent under house arrest, Mr. Alward has done a contortionist’s job at public events, and in private meetings, explaining, in often exquisite detail, his plans and priorities; in effect, his thinking.

And that may be his biggest problem.

On Friday, the premier was in a rare uncompromising, even antagonistic, mood. Lashing out at anti-shale gas activists in the province, he declared that they represented the point of the spear aimed directly at the heart of natural resources industries here.

“This is not just about SWN (Resources Inc.) being able to develop,” the Telegraph-Journal quoted him. “This not just about Rexton or Kent County and SWN. Mark my words that the same groups that are against seeing SWN move forward with exploration are against projects like Sisson Brook or other potential mining projects we have in New Brunswick. They are against seeing pipelines come across our country to Saint John and creating the prosperity (they) can.”

The denouement of his point was simply this: “The question the New Brunswickers should be asking is ‘what is our vision for our province’? . . .Do we want to have our young people living here in our province building their lives here or are we condemning them to having no choice of where they are going to live in the future?”

These are, indeed, the questions. They have always been the questions. It’s just too bad that Premier Alward has waited until now – less than a year before the provincial election – to pose them with such cogency and force.

In fact, had he spent more time over the past 18 months unapologetically supporting industry’s efforts to ascertain the economic potential of shale gas (indeed, of all promising avenues of natural resources) – and commensurately less time defending his government’s decisions and convening public panels in vain attempts to win friends and influence people – the conversation in this province might now be profoundly different, and radically more productive.

The bottom line is that Mr. Alward’s generally laudable instinct to consult ‘the people’ has also been a lamentable liability of his leadership, and on more files than natural resources.

The awful state of the province’s books – its rolling $500-million deficit on a long-term debt of $11 billion – is not, strictly speaking, the premier’s fault.

Still, in a way, it is.

By refusing to consider raising the provincial portion of the Harmonized Sales Tax, because he promised ‘the people’ he would consult them first, in the form of a referendum, he effectively tied the hands of his Finance Minister and severely compromised New Brunswick’s fiscal recovery from the Great Recession.

Had he forced the province to swallow this bitter, but necessary, pill early in his mandate, the public accounts would have been far healthier than they are today, providing the governing Tories with more and better options for health, education and social policies.

It might even have influenced the debate about shale gas by having eliminated much of the monetary hysteria that now underpins it.

Make no mistake: The consultative, empathetic premier of New Brunswick is a genuinely nice guy.

But, oftentimes, as the saying goes, nice guys finish. . .well, not first.

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Taking our lumps of coal

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New Brunswick stands poised between its very own imaginary rock and theoretical hard place as hundreds of people routinely gather to protest not the actual operations of a shale gas industry, but the very idea of one.

Such is the extraordinary depth of emotion this particular fossil fuel has plumbed in this province and many other jurisdictions around the world: There need not actually exist a wellbore pumping gas from the fracked ground to spark mass hysteria; just the threat of one.

Much of this has to do with the industry’s early record of public consultation, technical disclosure and environmental stewardship – which was not good. Some of it is related to organized information campaigns of various eco-warriors who are determined to drive the western world’s petro-chemical-industrial complex underground any way they can.

But as Premier David Alward juggles the oddly twinned priorities for shale gas development of forging ahead with supporters and stooping to chat with opponents, everyone on both sides of the issue seems blinkered to a far more tangible and existential evil.

Consider a recent Reuters report out of South Korea:

“Coal will surpass oil as the key fuel for the global economy by 2020 despite government efforts to reduce carbon emissions, energy consultancy firm Wood Mackenzie said on Monday (October 14). Rising demand in China and India will push coal past oil as the two Asian powerhouses will need to rely on the comparatively cheaper fuel to power their economies. Coal demand in the United States, Europe and the rest of Asia will hold steady.”

In fact, according to the news item, “Global coal consumption is expected to rise by 25 per cent by the end of the decade to 4,500 million tonnes of oil equivalent, overtaking oil at 4,400 million tonnes, according to Woodmac in a presentation on Monday at the World Energy Congress.”

As a source of energy, coal is both the cheapest and the dirtiest. Burning it produces a plethora of toxins, including nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, arsenic, hydrogen fluoride  chromium, mercury and cadmium. What’s more, coal’s contribution to global warming surpasses those of all other fossil fuels.

Green America, a not-for-profit environmental group that is calling for a moratorium on the stuff, lists a few other choice facts: “Coal is the largest single source of fuel for electricity generation in the world; coal is the most widely distributed fossil fuel, and is mined on all continents except Antarctica; the three of the most affected coal-mining states are Wyoming, West Virginia, and Kentucky; there is enough coal left to last about 200 more years at current rates of production.”

At which time, presumably, old fears about climate change will have become a distant memory for denizens of Planet Hothouse.

Citizens in the developed world have known about coal’s eminent dangers far better and for far longer, than they have about shale gas’s comparatively manageable environmental challenges. And yet, the filthy bitumen continues to drive energy development wherever it’s mined.

“Coal hurts communities, destroys wildlife and countryside and contributes massively to climate change,” the U.K.-based Coal Action network reports. “But coal has also been on the up in the UK over the past five years – some 50 opencast related applications have been approved in that time, and currently there are around 40 at various stages of the planning system.”

We may agree to disagree about hydraulically fracturing shale gas. But the indisputable fact is that this resource is much cleaner than coal and is, for this reason alone, an attractive energy solution.

One’s ideal world may include astonishing breakthroughs in safe, pristine, endlessly renewable power systems and storage cells. We may, some day, pilot our solar-driven airships to our local, organic green grocers.

But we won’t get there from here without deploying some form of fossil fuel to keep the lights of innovation burning into the small hours of the morning.

In this regard, it makes no sense to expand production of coal, the dirtiest form, as the means through which we finally clean up our collective act.

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