What’s the fracking story, already?

On the endlessly controversial subject of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in this province, New Brunswick’s Liberal leadership has, in the span of just one month, gone from reliably hard-headed to unpredictably incoherent.

Here’s Premier-designate Brian Gallant talking to the CBC, following his election win last month: “There will be a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing and those businesses (oil and gas explorers), I’m sure, are not surprised. This has been talked about, discussed and debated as a province for months if not years now. . .I think we have jurisdictions around us where I think we’ll be able to pull some of their experiences, how exactly this should be instituted, what’s the best way to go about it and what are the next steps.”

He even speculated almost sanguinely about the possibility that one or more of the drilling operations might sue the province as a result of his determination to the toe the environmentally expedient line: “(A legal action) is certainly something that could become a reality. We recognize that. We will certainly meet with (shale gas companies) and we will explain why our position is what it is.”

Now, here’s newly appointed Minister of Energy and Mines Donald Arseneault explaining to the Telegraph-Journal this week that he is well aware of the relationship between Corridor Resources and PotashCorp – in which the former supplies the latter with fracked, New Brunswick gas and has for years.

“The last thing we want to do is potentially put certain operations in jeopardy. For me, PotashCorp is a major player in New Brunswick. It’s a concern for me. It doesn’t mean that it gives everybody a green light, but it’s definitely in the back of my mind that I’ve got to be conscious and responsible going forward.”

To which the averagely informed, casually interested follower of the public-policy follies that constitute a permanent entertainment event in Fredericton (regardless of the party in power) might react thusly: Huh?

Does this mean the Grits are backtracking on their promise to temporarily forbid fracking? Or is their position merely, as the spin doctors like to say, “evolving”?

A more urgent question concerns the fate of PotashCorp’s new Picadilly mine without ready supplies of fracked natural gas. “That’s a valid point,” Mr. Arseneault told the T-J. “And those are the questions we are going to be asking the company. If we didn’t impose a moratorium, what is the activity they have planned for the next couple of years? Having a moratorium, how will it impact their operation? Will it impact potash? We haven’t settled on a specific menu other than we know there will be a moratorium.”

Again: Huh?

Dear reader, now to recap:

There will be a moratorium on fracking at some point in the near, to mid-term, to distant, future. But whether or not it will be a comprehensive, province-wide ban or a series of selective prohibitions depends entirely on whether or not the injunction injures the fortunes of one of the province’s largest industries.

In this instance, concern for the water table – the moral justification of the moratorium in the first place – takes a back seat to the more pragmatic realities of economic development.

Then again, the mere fact that Corridor has been operating in New Brunswick without incident for 10 years at least raises the possibility that drilling for tight shale gas – either hydraulically or with propane – can, in fact, be done both safely and responsibly. And, so, the purpose of a moratorium becomes what, exactly?

Mr. Arseneault appears to suggest it’s partly about election-campaign promise fulfillment – the Grit’s analogue to the previous Tory government’s refusal to consider raising the HST even a little just because, while running for office, they said they wouldn’t.

“At the end of the day,” the minister said, “our principals don’t change – we are going to implement a moratorium. I didn’t lie about it (to industry). I made that very clear. But we just need to determine now with the information that we gathered from them and other stakeholders as well as what kind of moratorium we want to implement.”

In other words, just as soon as this new government gets its story straight.

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