Would fracking turn New Brunswick into North Dakota?

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For those of the anti-shale gas, “I-told-you-so” bent, a New York Times piece from last Sunday’s edition about the utter mess – both figurative and literal – North Dakota’s oil and gas regulators are making of their state provides for some delectable reading.

Some of us will peruse the weighty tome (it runs close to 5,000 words) with mock horror and secret delight as we study a jurisdiction so fascinated by the economic promise new, horizontal drilling technologies represent that it has, with few exceptions, thrown environmental caution to the wind of commerce.

As the Times article makes plain, “Since 2006, when advances in hydraulic fracturing. . .began unlocking a trove of sweet crude oil in the Bakken shale formation, North Dakota has shed its identity as an agricultural state in decline to become an oil powerhouse second only to Texas.”

But, according to the newspaper’s independent investigation, using “previously undisclosed” sources of information, “as the boom really exploded, the number of reported spills, leaks, fires and blowouts has soared with an increase in spillage that outpaces the increase in oil production,” partly because (or so the implication goes), “forgiveness remains embedded in the (North Dakota) Industrial Commission’s approach to an industry that has given (the state) the fastest-growing economy and lowest jobless rate in the country.”

When the Times says “forgiveness”, it’s not exaggerating. Its research indicates that, since 2006, the Industrial Commission has collected a little over $1 million in penalties against oil and gas companies found culpable in environmental accidents. That compared with $33 million in Texas – no state of tree-huggers, it – during the same  eight-year period.

In other words, writes the Times, North Dakota is a “small state that believes in small government. . .It took on oversight of a multi-billion-dollar industry with a slender regulatory system built on neighborly trust, verbal warning and second chances.”

Meanwhile, “over all, more than 18.4 million gallons of oils and chemicals spilled, leaked or misted into the air, soil and waters of North Dakota from 2006 through early October 2014. The spill numbers derive from estimates, and sometimes serious underestimates, reported to the state by the industry.”

This is, of course, just the kind of thing opponents of shale gas development in New Brunswick fear: The ready collusion (or, at least, the appearance of one) between those who would rape the good earth for its booty of fossil fuels and those who are empowered by law to protect the environment from such ritual violations.

After all, they insist as they point to their smudged copies of last week’s Times, if it can happen in North Dakota, it can just as easily happen here.

In fact, they’re not entirely wrong.

The slope to ecological perdition is, indeed, slippery, made all the more so by the oil and gas industry’s unquenchable thirst for growth. When a province, like New Brunswick, or a state, like North Dakota, believes it has few options to forestall economic collapse, it will, more often than not, sell out to the highest bidder with the fanciest drilling technologies and most accessible checkbooks.

Still, when a province or state has more things going for it, economically speaking, than simply its natural resources, there’s little temptation to relax regulations and oversight to buffoonish parodies of themselves.

The question is whether New Brunswick is anything like North Dakota?

In fact, there may exist some disturbing similarities between us. Over the years, we’ve both suffered from stubborn levels of underemployment, a perennial skills drain, a creeping fiscal morass, declining public revenue, and outmigration.

But our differences make a far more compelling argument that New Brunswick is better equipped than its American doppelganger to stick to its regulatory guns.

We have a history of protest against shale gas, especially hydraulic fracturing; North Dakota does not. We have a tradition of strong, involved central government; North Dakota likes to have its libertarian pie and eat it, too.

What’s more, New Brunswick already has, in place, a reasonably strong set of regulatory injunctions, starting with a moratorium (or, rather, the threat of one) on tight oil and gas drilling until the current Liberal government is satisfied about its safety.

All of which, perhaps, affords us the moral authority to tsk and cluck at our friends south of the border. They blew it.

But their bad examples should not lead us to assume that we are doomed to set our own, should we ever get around to believing in ourselves again.

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