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.