It’s time to get clear on natural gas

Welcome to the energy big leagues, Mr. Premier.

Wheels upon wheels, gears upon gears, the squeeze play against Brian Gallant’s determination to impose a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in New Brunswick – the preferred industry method for extracting natural gas, with water, sand and a proprietary soup of chemicals,  from sedimentary rock – has officially commenced.

Not that there’s anything especially surprising about Corridor Resources’ public insistence that 30 of its fracked gas wells supplies PotashCorp’s operations in the Sussex area of the province – to no ill effect on the water, soil and air – with a competitively priced, comparatively clean source of fuel with which to dry the fertilizer for market readiness.

Nor is their anything particularly shocking about PotashCorp’s addendum last week.

“Access to a secure, stable and sustainable gas supply is critical to our. . .longterm success,” New Brunswick General Manager Jean-Guy Leclair told the Telegraph-Journal. “While there are alternate fuel sources for our facility, they would have profound implications on our current and future operational costs.”

Read between the lines, Mr. Premier. That’s a palpable threat. By now, you must know this. What’s mystifying is why you apparently didn’t see it coming.

Or, perhaps, you did, and your hard line in the sand during the election campaign was merely a political gambit to win over some voters.

Maybe your strategists advised you to hold that line for as long as you could and then capitulate only when major industrial players left you no choice.

If I had been one of your back-room boys, I would not have counselled this: Stay true to your principles until such time as the oil and gas lobby intimates major job losses; then reverse course in the broader interests of economic development.

And, in the process, blame the big, bad bogey man of corporate Canada for forcing your hand. “The devil made me do it, folks,” you might plead. “What can I say?”

Whatever is the case, all of it has been poor politics, poorer public policy and a fundamentally bad start for a new government.

And it’s getting worse.

Cabinet solidarity is one of the rocks that grounds leadership in a parliamentary democracy. It tells the electorate that the men and women the premier has chosen has his or her back, and, in the process assures the great, voting unwashed that they haven’t made a colossal mistake at the ballot box.

So, under these circumstances, what are we to make of Mines and Energy Minister Donald Arseneault’s freelance, off-playbook commentary last week?

“I was the minister back in 2007 who struck the deal to attract that investment of $2.2 billion (PotashCorp’s expansion) to New Brunswick,” he told the Telegraph-Journal last week. “We do know that Corridor feeds gas to the potash mines, and for me that is a very important component. . .For me, PotashCorp is a major player in New Brunswick. . .The last thing we want to do is potentially put certain operations in jeopardy.”

Now, we cut to a Page 3 story in the same organ on the same day.

“No,” declared Premier Gallant, “for us, it is a hydraulic fracturing moratorium, and we’re certainly willing to meet with different operations, different businesses, all stakeholders and New Brunswickers to understand the best way to implement this moratorium.”

None of which actually clarifies anything, except that the young premier of this province understands practically nothing about energy politics and, far more troubling, he seems oblivious to the worries of at least one of his important lieutenants – the one in charge of, arguably, the most important economic portfolio.

What now shall we expect? Will a great muzzling commence?

There is a way, of course, to safely and responsibly frack for gas in New Brunswick. We’ve been doing it for years. As long as we adhere to the tightest regulations our democracy provides — with the most comprehensive environmental oversight common sense produces — we have an even chance to reduce our reliance on far dirtier forms of fossil fuel and maybe, just maybe, generate the economic incentive to fully transition into a renewable, sustainable society. There is nothing new in any of this.

What is new is that we, in this fine, elegant, innocent part of the world must face the fact that we need the hard, tough, clear leadership to get us where we need to be.

Welcome to the energy big leagues, New Brunswick.

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