Government and industry types, desperate to envision a way out of New Brunswick’s straightened economic and fiscal circumstances, routinely point their fingers to the future and declare it full of shale gas.
Now, a new report by a group of people that actually knows something about science, evidence and the perils of jumping to conclusions advises us to cool our jets. The future isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
The multidisciplinary (and excessively named) Expert Panel on Harnessing Science and Technology to Understand the Environmental Impacts of Shale Gas Extraction, convened by the Council of Canadian Academics at the behest of Environment Canada, warns that not only do we lack adequate information about the effects of tight-play, onshore petroleum production in Canada, most of us are even too ignorant to ask the right questions.
In essence, to paraphrase former U.S, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, we don’t know what we don’t know.
“Society’s understanding of the potential environmental impacts has not kept pace with development, resulting in gaps in scientific knowledge about these impacts,” the report says. “In most instances, shale gas extraction has proceeded without sufficient environmental baseline data being collected (e.g., nearby groundwater quality,
critical wildlife habitat). This makes it difficult to identify and characterize environmental impacts that may be associated with or inappropriately blamed on this development.”
The solution, it appears, is to adopt a go-slow approach, the advantage of which “allow for additional data collection, to permit adaptation to the implications of new information, and to encourage integration of multidisciplinary expertise. . .There may also be some negative impacts of development that cannot be eliminated, and the scientific basis for identifying areas that are particularly vulnerable has not been established.”
None of which is especially good news for the likes of Premier David Alward or his energy czar, Minister Craig Leonard.
For at least three years, they, like most members of provincial cabinet, have been crowing as loudly as they can muster about the extraordinary economic benefits that will accrue from a safe, reliable, environmentally responsible shale gas industry. On this point, they have assembled, drafted, edited, amended and finally released what they claim are the toughest standards and guidelines for shale gas development anywhere in North America.
But, as the report points out, they’re getting woefully ahead of themselves.
Although the panel goes out of its way to acknowledge that the industry in Canada has cleaned up its act in recent years through “recycling (and) reducing land disruption by concentrating more wells at each drilling site, reducing the volumes of the toxic chemicals it uses, and reducing methane emissions during well completions,” it also stipulates that “other impacts, such as cumulative effects on land, fugitive GHG emissions, and groundwater contamination, are more problematic.
“This is the case because available mitigation technologies are untested and may not be sufficient; scientific understanding is incomplete; and the design of an adequate regulatory framework is hampered by limited information.”
A proper rules system, the experts insist, “must be based on appropriate science-driven, outcome-based regulations with strong performance monitoring, inspection, and enforcement.”
For his part, Mr. Leonard is playing it cool. The report, he says, does nothing to dissuade him from pursuing the current course in the manner he has chosen. Slow down? But, of course, he declares.
“When people say ‘Slow the process down,’ the fact is we haven’t done anything except for seismic testing over the last three years,” he noted last Thursday, following the report’s release.
“We aren’t going to have any new drilling taking place at least until next year and we probably won’t even have any actual hydraulically fracked wells being drilled in shale formations for a couple of years. So there is time to be building this information.”
And, perhaps, a better consensus across the province.
Lack of information breeds systemic ignorance, which, in turn, fuels unproductive rancor and fear (as opposes to useful and constructive debate).
The time this report suggests we purchase for ourselves should be spent educating ourselves about the true and likely impact of shale gas development in the specific geological and geographical conditions that are native to New Brunswick.
Only then will any of us possess the knowledge to accurately foresee the shape of things to come.