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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