Tag Archives: shale gas protests

It’s time to stop thinking magically about the future

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Those of us who are well-established in our irascibility – a function of our sullen conviction that most people are thoroughgoing nincompoops – approach the dawn of a new year experiencing an odd mixture of dread and resignation.

Didn’t we just come off the tail-end of one of the stupidest 12-month periods in recent Canadian history? Why must we do this all over again? Do we really expect to get it right this time when getting it wrong is what we do best?

Of course, part of getting it wrong – maybe the most important part – is making darn sure that otherwise eminently solvable problems become utterly intractable and, so, eternally, nauseatingly durable.

Consider, in this context, shale gas.

There might be 70 trillion cubic feet of the stuff trapped in sedimentary rock beneath the surface of New Brunswick. Presently, a handful of companies pursue exploration leases to determine whether any of the resource is commercially exploitable. If any of it is, then a new industry dedicated to its extraction and export could create hundreds of jobs and replenish provincial government coffers with royalty revenues.

Meanwhile, cognizant of the potential environmental hazards associated with drilling operations, the Government of New Brunswick has released not one, but three sets of guidelines to govern industry practices. Premier David Alward calls these rules “the toughest and most comprehensive in North America.” He’s not wrong.

All things being equal, then, one should expect a broad level of public support for the investigative phase of this resource’s development. After all, no one’s building a strip mine or digging a quarry, many of which exist in New Brunswick, posing far more of an existential threat to potable water and uncontaminated soil than do shale gas wells.

But lest John Q. Public becomes confused, he must always ignore the facts. Now, the only images tight plays of petroleum conjure in the minds of the majority are those of angry, rural locals (and their urban, politically correct confederates) who are convinced that democratically elected governments cannot be trusted to regulate industry responsibly.

Somehow, placards, barricades and protest lines do a far better job than does the law of holding accountable those dirty, rapacious drilling operations.

Equally absurd, and no less irksome, is the notion, gaining widespread currency in the mainstream of the population, that New Brunswick should abandon all efforts to develop any of its natural resources – non-renewable and otherwise.

The argument against harvesting and processing fossil fuels is already familiar and, though not actually practical, not without some merit. But many of those who decry pipelines for Alberta bitumen into Saint John’s refinery also condemn wind turbines, which pollute nothing, contribute no green house gases to global warming, as they add 500 megawatts of electricity to the province’s power grid each year.

With evidence that is almost diaphanous, opponents of “big wind” claim that proximity to the rotating blades produces everything from migraines to vertigo to brain tumors. Besides, they whine, they’re ugly.

Such was the condition of New Brunswick’s polity in the year that was. Such, we may reasonably fear, will be its condition in the year ahead, solely because, in this province, a lack of intellectual firepower is matched only by a catastrophic failure of the collective imagination.

Increasingly, far too many of us cannot conceive of a day when we will witness the economic engines and commercial levers freeze for good. It’s never happened before. We’ve always managed to pull through, demanding and pretty much getting everything we’ve asked our politicians to deliver.

The corollary effect, of course, is that we get politicians who will only pander to our misguided, uninformed expectations.

But the day of reckoning is nearly upon us. A province of 750,000 people, sporting a structural deficit of $500 million on a long-term debt of $11 billion – a province that is shedding people and jobs faster than any other in Canada – cannot afford to engage in magical thinking about its future.

Should this realization eventually dawn on New Brunswick, version 2014, I’ll gladly apologize to all those of my fellow citizens who once apprenticed in this sullen, self-satisfied land as nincompoops.

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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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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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Douse the fire that rages beneath

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Nothing ignites media coverage and inflames public opinion quite like images of burning cop cars. The realization that authority’s symbols can go up in smoke, just like anything else, with the strike of a match is horrifying to many; strangely satisfying to some.

But though news and opinion will inevitably focus on who started the conflagration (both literal and figurative) on a rural stretch of New Brunswick highway last week – a bonfire that claimed five police cruisers and resulted in the arrest of 40 native people protesting shale gas development in the province – the rooted issues are harder to untangle in an era when disenfranchisement is the normative language of public engagement.

Adam Huras’s excellent first-hand account, in the Telegraph-Journal, of the Thursday-morning raid of the protesters’ encampment near Rexton suggests that the RCMP may have overdosed on bowls of Wheaties the night before.

“On Thursday morning, at either end of the protest encampment were only a handful of RCMP officers learning up against a few cars,” he wrote for Friday’s edition.

“‘It was a slow night, you didn’t miss much,’ said one officer. ‘It’s quiet,’ added another.

And then it wasn’t. In an instant, two police cars flashing red and blue lights, closed off the road. ‘Move!’ yelled an officer. ‘And don’t you text anyone, not one person. Don’t touch your phone.’ I was being walked back to my car when the order was given to move in.”

At which point, he reported, the stuff really hit the fan: “Roughly two dozen unmarked cars, a large police van and a bus converged on the area at 7:15 a.m. – the vehicles flying down both the on and off ramps of Route 11. Jumping from them were police in full camouflage brandishing guns. About 20 Mounties entered the protest area and 20 more stood at the barricade. Wave after wave of reinforcements arrived.”

Then came the fires, set by angry protestors.

It’s tempting to think that the violence on both sides is exclusively about natural gas. The Elsipogtog First Nation, like many other groups in New Brunswick, is genuinely  concerned about the effects of hydraulic fracturing on supplies of drinking water. In this, they’ve chosen to believe fellow opponents from other parts of North America who have longer experience with the industry.

But gas merely fuels the fire that lies beneath.

An inchoate rage burns across the land. For Canada’s First Nations, it finds expression in the Idle No More movement. For others in towns and cities just about everywhere in the western world, it generates an irresistible desire to “occupy” something – a public park, a government quadrangle, the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral in downtown London.

The suspicion that governments no longer represent the interests of average people, but only those of powerful lobbies and corporate interests has evolved into a conviction. The evidence, many believe, is everywhere.

What, they point out, was the financial meltdown of 2008 and subsequent Great Recession except an implosion of greed and avarice perpetrated by the few at the expense of the many?

What, they ask, is behind widening gaps in income and economic opportunity except the wholesale abrogation of democratic principles of equal and fair representation before the juggernaut of privilege?

Why can’t legislators in Washington keep their nation open long enough to do the people’s business? Why can’t lawmakers in Ottawa respect their own environmental regulations?

Shale gas protest, though specific in its own  right, in New Brunswick is also a species of this unease with, and mistrust of, public institutions.

The only way to address it is to talk candidly and openly with one another.

No long ago, Premier David Alward and First Nations leaders in the province made a good start. In fact, according to The Canadian Press on October 6, they arranged to “continue talks Monday in an effort to resolve a growing dispute over shale gas exploration. Alward and three of his cabinet ministers met Sunday with Elsipogtog council members and other opponents of the shale gas industry at a hotel in Moncton, N.B., in an effort to end a protest that has closed a highway in eastern New Brunswick for a week.”

If last Thursday’s events are any indication, the need for dialogue has never been more urgent.

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