“Common ground” initiative makes common sense


Proof, perhaps, that the best ideas on just about everything originate far from the cocoons and cloisters of governments and corporations, the Atlantica Centre for Energy, based in Saint John, is injecting a long-overdue dose of sanity into New Brunswick’s shale gas debate.

In fact, the outline of its scheme, called “common ground”, to encourage “dialogue” among opponents and supporters of onshore petroleum development in the province – particularly, on the hot-button issue of hydraulic fracturing – makes so much sense, I’m puzzled – even a little annoyed – I didn’t think of it, myself.

The approach is simple enough.

We know that many rational people here are deeply worried about the effects on potable water and soil of large-scale fracking operations, and that, given the industry’s track record over the decades in other parts of North America, they have good reason.

We also know that exploration companies in New Brunswick insist that their technologies and practices have substantially improved, in recent years, and that provincial regulations governing their activities are among the strictest in the world.

Furthermore, we know that the debate has been hung up on competing definitions of what is actually knowable – a sort of epistemological hornet’s nest of a priori and a posteriori suppositions – about an industry that has not yet determined whether there is enough recoverable resource to justify commercial enterprise.

So, the Atlantica Centre reasonably argues, why not create an online podium for both sides – unedited, unfiltered, utterly transparent? Why not build a series of videos that present the divergent opinions, for and against, post them to its website and invite public reaction?

Or, as the group’s president, John Herron, told the Telegraph-Journal on Monday, “My view is that in the old days industry used to come to town and say, ‘I promise you jobs and growth – love me.’ That doesn’t work anymore. You can’t address an environmental concern or a health concern with an economic response.”

In fact, he added, “The minimum we owe each other is a dialogue, and if there is a process that people feel they can participate in, if there is a safe place where those different perspectives can be exchanged, I think we can identify points of agreements on many aspects that we are currently not. . .Consultation and engagement really has to be an ongoing, progressive process. It can’t be an event or even a series of events, and if there isn’t a process in place that people have confidence in, it’s not by accident that the default response in many cases becomes protest.”

Naturally, the key is creating that “safe place”. To this end, the Centre appears to have given serious thought to the breadth of representation that’s necessary to legitimize its venture. The first video, according to the T-J, incorporates commentary from “Cyril Polchies from the Elsipogtog First Nation; Jim Emberger, a Taymouth resident who is part of an alliance of New Brunswick community groups against the development of shale gas; Green Party Leader David Coon; NDP Leader Dominic Cardy; Stephanie Merrill of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick; Barbara Pike, executive director of the Maritimes Energy Association; and Donald Savoie, the Canada Research Chair in Public Policy and Administration at l’Université de Moncton.”

Of course, none of this will fully immunize Mr. Herron and his association from criticism. The Atlantica Centre’s membership roll is a who’s who of business interests in the province. It includes Canaport LNG, Deloitte, Emera, Ernst & Young, Fundy Engineering, IPR-GDF SUEZ North America, Irving Oil Ltd., J.D. Irving Ltd., Maritimes Northeast Pipeline, NB Power, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Stantec. It also includes the two heaviest of hitters in the province’s shale gas game: Corridor Resources and Southwestern Energy.

But, these affiliations, alone, should not automatically dilute public confidence in the authenticity of the Centre’s project. Industry has known, for some time, that it can’t merely brush aside principled opposition. Until now, though, it hasn’t had the faintest clue about how to communicate its points to the broader public.

Letting its critics have their say, without ginning up the traditional spin machine, is a fresh idea whose time has finally come round.

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