The New Brunswick government ritually boasts it maintains the toughest, most circumspect regulatory standards for shale gas in North America. But that’s faint comfort if those responsible for enforcing them don’t actually know what they say.
No doubt to the grim satisfaction of opponents of the controversial drilling technique – who have always mistrusted officialdom’s supreme confidence in the structural integrity of its knowledge bank – a glaring case in point now plays out on the front pages of provincial newspapers.
According to Legislative reporter Adam Huras, documents obtained by Brunswick News show that the Department of Natural Resources was advised that an exploration company complied with the law (when it undertook seismic testing within the borders of the municipality of Sussex) before government officials issued a press release that stated precisely the opposite.
That announcement, on behalf of then-Natural Resources Minister Bruce Northrup, on November 9, 2011, read, in part: “I wish to inform the public that a complaint has been filed by the Department of Natural Resources with the RCMP alleging Windsor Energy Inc. of Calgary, Alta., violated the Oil and Natural Gas Act by directing a contracted company to conduct geophysical exploration within the boundaries of the Town of Sussex.
“Under regulation 86-191 of the Oil and Natural Gas Act, a municipality’s written permission is required before geophysical activity can be conducted inside the boundaries of an incorporated municipality.”
The epistle then concluded on a note of supreme sanctimony: “New Brunswickers can be assured that all companies exploring for or developing oil and natural gas reserves in our province are expected to observe our laws and that we will ensure these laws are upheld. The rules we have in place and those now being developed to strengthen our regulatory framework are intended to protect our people and our environment, and must be respected.”
Regrettably – if only for the government – it appears that Windsor violated no laws; that it was obligated to obtain permission to test from either the town (which it did not consult) or the Province (which it did), but not necessarily both.
Certainly, the company’s CEO, Khalid Amin, is sure Windsor did nothing wrong. Now, he’s suing the provincial government for $100 million alleging that Mr. Northrup’s comments in the November press release and the follow-up RCMP investigation (which produced no charges, naturally) were libelous.
There is much to ponder in all of this, starting with the investigative reporter’s credo: Who knew what, when?
The chain of correspondence at the end of October, 2011, clearly shows one Charles Murray, a lawyer attached to Communications New Brunswick, strongly advising Natural Resources to cool its jets: “It would perhaps have been good form or or polite of them (Windsor) to obtain the permission of both (the town and the Province). . .It was not, however, required under the provisions of the regulations. . .Given that, I am not at all in favour of the minister stating that Windsor violated the province’s Oil and Natural Gas Act.”
You can’t get any more categorical than that. So, then, why did government officials ignore the advice in its entirety? Did they believe they had a steadier grip on the relevant legislation than did the attorney they presumably paid to advise them on the one thing about which lawyers know more than anybody: the law?
According to Mr. Huras’s report, the emails he obtained “also show that government staff asked the RCMP not to publicly reveal the reason why the investigation into Windsor’s seismic work in the Sussex area would not result in charges.”
That’s predictable. Stupid, but predictable.
In situations like these, the only reason why the cops would not pursue charges is that they believe the subject of their investigation committed no infraction.
In this case, expunging a talking point from a communications strategy isn’t going to prevent anyone from coming to that conclusion, or that the provincial government’s ham-handed stick-handling of the whole affair undermines public confidence in its ability to administer and regulate the shale gas industry in New Brunswick.
After all, why is the original, offending statement – the one over which Mr. Amin is suing the Province – still posted to the Department of Natural Resources’ website, still out there in the public domain in all its taunting glory?
Forget about this government knowing what its own regulations say.
Does it even know what it’s doing?