Tag Archives: fracking

The institutional non-credibility problem

For and against shale gas in New Brunswick: The immoveable object meets the implacable foe

For and against shale gas in New Brunswick: The immoveable object meets the implacable foe

 

New Brunswick Premier David Alward’s concern that his provincial Energy Institute is losing credibility owing to the long shadow its not-so-dearly departed founding chairman, Louis LaPierre, has cast raises a certain question: What credibility?

Are not reputations, good or otherwise, built on track records?

The Conservation Council of New Brusnwick’s Stephanie Merrill comes as close as anybody to putting a finger on the matter when she tells the Telegraph-Journal, “We’re concerned about this institute. Its mandate and what it’s going to do have been very unclear.”

Though she allows that the province could use an organization that soberly deliberates the future of energy in this neck of the woods, she perceives a “serious flaw in continuing the discussions around shale gas, pipelines, the same old story and not a new vision.”

It is, of course, in her job description to question the merit of pursuing a fossil-fuel -based economy, but I wonder if she prematurely gives the Institute too much credit. In the several months since its formal founding, it hasn’t done much for or against “shale gas” and “pipelines” and what might be termed an “old vision” of industrial development.

That’s not to say it isn’t packed with expertise (a fact which critics, who are out to skin Dr. Lapierre for misrepresenting his academic credentials even as he, himself, conceived of the Institute, conveniently neglect to mention).

Its scientific advisory council includes Adrian Park,Tom Al, Maurice Dusseault, Karen Kidd, Richard Saillant, David Besner, and Fred Metallic. All but one hold PhDs in relevant disciplines, such as geology, earth sciences, civil engineering, environmental biology, chemical engineering.

Dr. Besner, who replaces Dr. Lapierre, will function as the Institute’s interim chairman, a job for which he is eminently qualified, at least according to N.B. Energy and Mines Minister Craig Leonard. “He is very familiar with the framework that has been established for the institute,” the minister declared in a statement last week. “I am pleased that he accepted to lead (it). . .as it prepares to launch the water monitoring program along with several other key initiatives.”

So, what are these “key initiatives?” A more intriguing question, perhaps, is how they’ll be prosecuted, given this tasty revelation, reported in the Telegraph-Journal on Friday: “Besner’s hgonorarium does not increase in his new position. All members (of the Institute) are entitled to $450 for a full day’s work. Previous to taking the new position, Besner said the job typically involved a day and a half of work a month. He expects he’ll be be busier as chairman.”

Still, “he’s not quitting his regular job as a consultant and will not work at the institute full time.”

All of which sounds like extraordinarily light duty for a deliberative body in which the premier and his lieutenants have invested both money and confidence.

Certainly, the organization’s website doesn’t offer much in the way of enlightenment. “The New Brunswick Energy Institute is an independent body separate from government that was created to examine the science surrounding energy possibilities in our province,” the home page states. “Made up of experts in different areas of science, the Institute will examine the science pertaining to oil and gas development in the province.”

The “Research” section lists two publications: Dr. Lapierre’s initial report, which called for the Institute’s establishment (hardly, we now know, a rigorous piece of science); and a Deloitte study on shale gas supply chain opportunities in the province.

Click on the “Ongoing Research” button, and up pops a promise: “Coming Soon.”

To be fair, the Institute is still young. It hasn’t had time to find its walking shoes, let alone hit the ground running. But the political spin surrounding its eminent authority and now endangered credibility, which, we are assured, must be urgently restored is both irksome and counterproductive.

The perceived misdeeds of one man have far less to do with the Institute’s reputation than does its own lack of deeds to date.

Let it actually do something before we assign any degree of importance to its role – good or bad – in framing energy policy in New Brunswick.

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A tale of two shale gas protests

Quicksand for us; Grand Poupon for them

What shall we name it as midsummer slides effortlessly along the briny beaches of New Brunswick’s cottage country. The “kerfuffle in Kent County”? The “excitation of Elsipogtog”?  Surely, nothing so provocative as the “battle of Balcombe”. Besides, that name is already taken.

No one does controversy quite like the Brits. Compared to them, Americans are punters. Canadians are merely quaint. So it is with regular rounds of ministerial expense scandals. So it is with steamy love affairs, illicitly conducted in high office. So it is with shale gas exploration.

The battle of Balcombe, a town in West Sussex, roughly 75 kilometers due south of London, provides something for everyone. The controversy, says one recent “shortcuts” blog post in the online version of The Guardian, “has pitched police trying to ensure energy company Cuadrilla can drill an exploratory well outside (the) pretty, prosperous and hitherto sleepy. . .village against a coalition of protesters who fear the operation will lead to full-scale oil or gas production through the controversial process of fracking. The opposition alliance are a disparate bunch.”

There are, of course, the usual suspects, such as Friends of the Earth and the anti-gas groups Frack Off, Frack Free Sussex, Gas Field Free Sussex and No Fracking in East Kent. And there are the celebrities, including Bianca Jagger (ex-wife of Mick), Natalie Hynde (daughter of another rock icon, Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders).

There is Simon Medhurst, the well-known activist about whom the Guardian writes, “also known as ‘Sitting Bull’, (he) earlier this year successfully delayed work on a new Bexhill-to-Hastings link road by tunnelling beneath it.”

And there is Marina Pepper (nee Baker), an East Sussex local councillor who was once a tabloid model, a Playboy Playmate of the Month for March 1987, actor and journalist. A Wikipedia entry says the ardent environmentalist “is known today as a practising Wiccan and author of several children’s books on Witchcraft, including Spells for the Witch in You; Spells for Teenage Witches: Get Your Way with Magical Power; Marina Baker’s Teenage Survival Guide; and Spells for Cats (the last was published under the name Daisy Pepper). In 2001, she worked as a magic consultant for a BBC documentary about the Harry Potter books.”

All of whom are dead, set against even the possibility of a shale gas industry in their green and pleasant land, a posture which moves the Telegraph to testily observe, “Unfortunately, the Balcombe protest against proposed exploratory drilling in the Weald has been hijacked by professional Swampy-style eco-warriors who would happily return the nation’s economy to pre-industrial times.”

In contrast, New Brunswick’s organized opposition to shale gas development, while vigorous and vocal, has been largely lacking in hot-headed celebrities – at least, on the ground. Where are the David Suzuki sand Margaret Atwoods, chaining themselves to trees felled to block the progress of seismic testing trucks?

Yes, police have made arrests. And yes, there have been incidents that appear very much like orchestrated vandalism. Still, the mood seems to have changed of late. It has become more reflective.

“The biggest thing that came out of this was we got to unite the people,” John Levi, an Elsipogtog warrior chief for the protestors in Kent County, told the Moncton Times & Transcript not long ago. “Like the non-natives, like the Acadians, the English, Metis, all the cultures, so that’s the biggest accomplishment here I see.”

Added Wendall Nicholas, a peacekeeper in the anti-gas movement, “Each time we’ve done our best to use our utmost respect and patience to see a peaceful outcome. We work in a very respectful and patient manner –  whether it’s on a logging road in 40-degree heat or a telephone conversation.”

It’s no sure bet that SWN Resources, which has been the target of much of the protests, would agree. Still, they’re not saying one way or the other.

Nope, we Canadians just don’t controversy like the Brits. Maybe, that’s a good thing, after all.

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On seismic testing, just the facts please

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Those of us who remain curious about the economic potential of onshore tight oil and gas in New Brunswick might as well face it: There is no perfectly safe way to develop an industry that pulls vast quantities of petroleum from the ground. There never has been, and there never will be.

The only thing that matters is identifying the level of risk we are prepared to assume in return for jobs, royalties and tax revenues. And to do this, we need facts. But where are they?

The news media is in its element when it covers controversy. Altercations and recriminations between shale gas protestors along Highway 126 and SWN Resources, which is undertaking exploration there, make headlines. Dispassionate examinations of the claims both for and against the technologies involved more often do not.

And so, we are left sifting through emotionally charged assertions for clues of validity. We are left, for example, parsing this statement from a local resident, whom the CBC quoted in a story the other day: “There’s lots of money in Alberta, but when people come home they don’t want to see this. The money is good, but the money isn’t everything. . .They still put charges of dynamite in the ground and they still blast them.”

He was referring to the practice of seismic testing, which, according to the website naturalgas.org, “artificially (creates) waves, the reflection of which are then picked up by sensitive pieces of equipment called ‘geophones’ that are embedded in the ground.” Essentially, the procedure takes a picture of what lies beneath.

The question, of course, is whether this citizen’s concerns about the potentially catastrophic effects of the process on the water table and broader environment  – which, not incidentally, mirror those of many others in the province – are justified.

Or is Marc Belliveau of the provincial Department of Energy and Mines closer to the truth? Yesterday, he told this newspaper, “There is, unfortunately, a lot of misconceptions of what seismic testing is and what it is not. . .It’s used in making highways, it’s used in finding water sources for municipalities. . .There was seismic testing carried out along more than 500 kilometres in New Brunswick two years ago. . .There were no issues.”

Still, that was then. What about now? Back in the stone age, when I briefly majored in Geology at university, seismic testing was breakthrough technology in the oil and gas industry. And, like all breakthrough technologies – which are, by their natures, intrusive – this one did cause “issues”.

Even today, the procedure can be problematic. Earlier this month, oil and gas companies in the Gulf of Mexico agreed to forgo using the technology over concerns that it may harm marine life. According to a news report from KNOE.com, “Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Development Council says the (moratorium) will give the government and industry time for required environmental studies and research.”

That said, the best evidence suggests that seismic testing in New Brunswick is about as safe as can be expected given the province’s regulatory framework and SWN’s statement of exploration practice, which appears on its website.

“The vibroseis technique is only used on roadways and provides quality signals with minimal disturbance,” the company declares. “Seismic vibrator trucks are equipped with an underlying vibrating plate to generate specific sound signals. . .The strength of the signal from one seismic vibrator truck is very small; several trucks need to be activated simultaneously to create a signal strong enough to be recorded. These vehicles create noise levels similar to that made by a logging truck.”

When no roads are available, SWN says it deploys the “shot hole technique”. In these instances, the company clears “a maximum three metre-wide path for a drill vehicle in the woods. No vegetation larger than 15 centimeters in diameter is cut. The track-mounted drill vehicle drills a hole 15 metres deep. A small seismic source is placed at the bottom of the hole and is sealed with clay and drill cuttings per provincial regulations. When safely secured, the source is activated with specialized equipment. Afterwards, the area is restored to its original state.”

Whether or not this statement can allay public concern depends entirely on the degree to which one is willing to allow fact to triumph over fear.

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