For academic geologists, who study the world’s reserves of oil and gas, which have slumbered beneath the surface for millions of years, time is a meaningless concept. For public officials, embroiled in the politics of petroleum development, it’s the only thing that matters. Or it should be.
One of the broad and exquisite ironies (and there are many) about the gathering controversy over shale gas in New Brunswick is that the provincial government has only just figured this out.
For months, if not years, elected representatives of the Tory persuasion have ceded nearly all of the high ground in the battle to win the hearts and minds of the great, voting unwashed to the Internet-mining, documentary-viewing, anti-fracking, fossil-fuel-loathing constituency.
At times, Premier David Alward’s cabineteers have seemed downright flummoxed by the vehemence of opposition to shale gas development in the province. After all, they said as they scratched their scalps, as we don’t yet know whether there is an actual industry to despise, shouldn’t we identify its true, commercial potential before we lose our collective minds to inchoate outrage?
But, of course, such musings are not how you win a revolution. Environmental and community activists know well the first rule of effective civil action: Don’t wait for your enemy to set the agenda.
This is especially important in circumstances where your enemy has more money than God. If and when shale gas companies actually do fire up their production platforms, no amount of peaceful – if vitriolic – protest will ever shut them down. Only economics can achieve this. Hence, the marvelously orchestrated fury.
Lately, though, the Province has stepped up its game in defence of what it might term the prudent development of shale gas in New Brunswick. In two, surprisingly articulate, commentaries carried by the Times & Transcript’s sister organ, the Telegraph-Journal, Energy and Mines Minister Craig Leonard sets out his case. First, he says in so many words, “We can’t afford to do nothing,” before he declares, “We will ensure we can enjoy the economic benefits. . .while proceeding in a safe, responsible and sustainable manner.”
Of these, the strongest argument is the latter and, again, one wonders why it’s taken this long to make it this cogently.
At the heart of the opposition to shale gas is the conviction that hydraulic fracturing is inherently injurious to the environment and, by extension, to communities proximate to drilling operations. To support the claim, critics produce a virtual trove of information, gleaned from the Web, that clearly demonstrate just how fully industry players have desecrated whole regions of the United States with faint regard for their responsibilities, above those that secure shareholder values.
Some of the “proof” is spurious; some of it is persuasive. (Valid or not, it’s hard to counter a homeowner’s assertion that he abandoned the family farm because his once healthy child began coughing blood only after the nearby rig started drilling).
And yet the massive hole in this argument, through which no one in public office (until now) has seen fit to drive a rhetorical truck, is that New Brunswick’s opportunity lies before it. The province has a chance to do things better and more safely. It is not tethered to shoddy regulations and “industry-friendly” arrangements. It starts with a clean slate. Or, as Mr. Leonard, writes: “We designed the new rules for industry to ensure issues with the industry faced by other jurisdiction will not occur here.
“Whether it is requiring that all fluids used in the gas extraction process are kept in a closed loop system to ensure no contact with the land, the constant monitoring of air and water or improved construction of the wellbore, our rules will protect the land, water and air.”
The other piece is that no two shale plays are exactly alike. The experiences of one region are not reliably transferrable to another simply because we invoke the word “fracking” – like some, dark incantation – to describe industrial activity in both.
Mr. Leonard’s arguments will not convince everyone, of course. But they are, at least, useful contributions to what should be an informed, public debate. And, for once, they are timely.