Tag Archives: hydraulic fracturing

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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Denial and deflection on shale gas

Too much official hot air as shale gas in New Brunswick bloats expectations

Too much official hot air as shale gas in New Brunswick bloats expectations

Into each political life, a little denial must fall. But the New Brunswick government’s contention that the tide of opinion in the province is turning in favor of shale gas development seems particularly delusional.

Survey after survey have clearly established that more people than not believe tight petroleum drilling – which employs the controversial method of hydraulic fracturing – poses a threat to the environment and, by extension, to communities in rural areas. A recent Corporate Research Associates (CRA) poll merely confirms what we have known for months.

“New Brunswick residents are concerned about the safety of shale gas exploration and are split on whether the process is important to the economic future of the province,” the Halifax-based opinion-taker announced this week. “One-half (48 per cent) of residents believe shale gas to be critically important or important but not critical to New Brunswick’s economic future, while a similar number (44 per cent) believe it to be not very important or not at all important to the economy of the province.”

Meanwhile, “when asked (about) the safety of shale gas exploration, on a scale of ‘1’ to ‘10’ where ‘1’ is not safe at all and ’10’ is extremely safe, the average rating was 3.9 indicating many residents perceive shale gas exploration to be unsafe. Those in the Northern Region (3.3) and Moncton area (3.5) are more likely to consider the exploration of shale gas unsafe compared with those in the Southern region (4.6).”

All of which moved CRA’s chairman Don Mills to observe, “it is clear that there will be significant and continuing challenges to government and industry in the development of shale gas resources in the province of New Brunswick.”

In an interview with the Telegraph-Journal this week, he went further: “The results say to me that the provincial government and the industry are both in a tough corner right now. . .There are so many people who believe that fracking is unsafe, I think the opponents of shale gas have won the day on that argument, at least at this point.”

What, then, justifies Energy Minister Craig Leonard’s sunny disposition? He also told the TJ this week, “(People) need to understand that we have the strictest rules in North America in place. But the support is growing and from what we are hearing on the ground, most people we are discussing this with say that even if they have concerns with the process, they want us to see what kind of resource we do have through the exploration phase.”

That’s hardly a ringing public endorsement. People are always willing to consider the necessary evils of their circumstances as long as those evils remain hypothetical. The moment the drills go into the ground and the gas starts flowing in earnest, it’s a whole new ball game. For the provincial Tories, the game may already be over.

CRA’s early June survey found that support for the government, among decided voters in New Brunswick, had slipped to just 29 per cent, down from 32 per cent in March. The Liberals commanded a 41 per cent approval rating, up from 35 per cent in the earlier three-month period. These shifts in electoral preferences neatly coincide with Grit calls for a moratorium on further shale gas development.

Now, in a tactical tour de force (though farce may be a more accurate word), the provincial government is hoping to secure acquiescence to onshore exploration by conflating the effort with a potential eastern pipeline into Saint John – a project for which there is broad, if not unanimous, support. This sort of deflection, though common enough among politicians, almost never works. Worse, in most cases, it backfires.

The plain, hard truth is that leadership in public office inevitably entails disappointing and angering many of those who put you there.

If shale gas is, in the opinion of this government, worth pursuing, then get on with it – safely, responsibly and openly, of course. But leave out the sugarcoating and magic tricks. No one’s buying any of it.

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New Brunswick’s biggest natural resource is fury

Seeing the forest for the trees in hydraulic fracturing

Seeing the forest for the trees in hydraulic fracturing

Those who believe that New Brunswickers are apathetic about their futures need only survey the province for visible signs of outrage, which are everywhere. Apparently, we are mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.

The question is: What is the “it” we refuse to “take”?

Once upon a time, it was the sale of NB Power to Hydro-Quebec. The contretemps over that issue brought down a government already reeling from the outcry over its proposals to establish a network of polytechnics in the province and reform French language instruction for Anglophones.

These days, it’s cuts to the public service, education and health care that have ignited the pyres of dissent from Sackville to Edmundston.

No issue, however, is as incendiary as hydraulic fracturing, with its dark promise to pollute and sunder communities wherever the shale gas industry sinks its wells.

Last week, the RCMP arrested three people – about 120 kilometers north of Moncton – who were protesting SWN Resources seismic testing (advance work in the exploration of tight petroleum plays). The cops said the trio refused to make way for trucks. Other observers at the scene said the authorities overreacted.

For his part, Brad Walters a professor of environmental studies professor at Mount A, called it a sign of the times, to which we should grow accustomed. He told  CTV it reflects “a combination of things coming together here. . .There is this network of over 30 groups across the province who are talking to each other and are very strongly opposed to shale gas development.”

Call it the immoveable object that meets an unstoppable force, but opposition to shale gas in this province has become a permanent feature of the landscape. No careful ministrations by the provincial government, promising to enforce the “toughest” regulations in North America – no vows by industry representatives to adhere to only the highest standards of environmental stewardship – are likely to placate the critics.

This worries people like Susan Holt, president and CEO of the New Brunswick Business Council, which commissioned a report, released recently, on the economic potential of shale gas in the province. “Some of the opposition is a little bit disconcerting to industry because it appears to be general industry opposition rather than specific,” she told the Telegraph-Journal’s Chris Morris. “When New Brunswickers resist general industrial activity, that is more nerve-racking for our folks because it begs the question, how do we develop our economy?”

How, indeed?

Legitimate concerns about water and soil degradation and principled stands against fossil fuels warming the planetary orb only partially explain the current antagonism. At the heart of the hostility to shale gas is a position against which there is no defence: People simply detest the idea of it. Onshore petroleum development somehow cuts against the weave of the province’s social fabric.

The identical mental dynamic was at work when potash was first developed. It was in even planer view when wind turbines began dotting the countryside. Lest we forget uranium?

Logic is a blunt instrument of persuasion when passions are running high, as they tend to do when statements from the provincial Department of Energy and Mine declare that “Nine companies hold a Crown license to search and/or lease within New Brunswick. These include a total of 71 rights agreements, covering over 1.4 million hectares, for the exploration and production of oil and natural gas.”

In fact, the Province has spent a good deal of time touting New Brunswick as the undisputed nexus of the emerging tight oil and gas industry in Atlantic Canada. Estimates, it likes to say, peg the volume of natural gas trapped between layers of sedimentary rock hundreds, or even thousands, of meters beneath the soil’s surface at close to 77 trillion cubic feet.

What it – and industry, itself – hasn’t spent much effort doing is reminding New Brunswickers that no one yet knows whether the resource is even commercially viable. Nor have they attempted to explain (until very recently) the safeguards that must attend its extraction and development.

Now, it may be too late to expect a sea change of attitude.

It’s a shame we can’t harness the energy from all the outrage we generate.

If we could, we’d never again worry about the future of our province.

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