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.