On the shale gas merry-go-round

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The on-again, off-again shale gas industry in New Brunswick is less impressive for its estimated 70-trillion cubic feet of exploitable resource than for its verifiably inexhaustible supply of deja-vu moments.

Last week, Energy Minister Donald Arseneault introduced a new “panel” of experts – comprised of New Brunswick former chief justice Guy Richard, former University of New Brunswick President John McLaughlin and former chairwoman of New Brunswick Community College Cheryl Robertson – who will spend the next few months assembling the “true facts” about the practice of hydraulic fracturing, on which the Liberal government has slapped a moratorium.

Said Mr. Arsenault at news conference in Fredericton last Tuesday: “It’s an independent commission. . .They have carte blanche. I don’t want to prejudge how they are going to do their work. Justice Richard, as well as the two commissioners. . .will have the opportunity to consult who they feel can contribute to this process.”

All of which feels eerily familiar. A couple of years ago, the pro-shale gas Progressive Conservative government established the New Brunswick Energy Institute (NBEI) to, among other things, conduct research on shale gas development, including hydraulic fracturing, as an “independent” body of experts, beholden to nothing no one but their own findings and consciences.

Its mandate was, and is, “to commission and oversee scientific research in New Brunswick, peer review relevant research from other jurisdictions, and provide access to the information for New Brunswickers in an easily understood format so it can be considered in forming opinions about appropriate courses of action in the energy sector.”

Its mission statement elaborates on this role “to fund and foster research, which will assist with the understanding of, and decision making related to, energy issues and potential development in New Brunswick (including exploration, production, transportation, transmission and utilization.”

It’s also charged with examining “energy-related research and observations in other jurisdictions, to assess their value and relevance to the New Brunswick scene; to communicate the Institute’s findings in a clear, objective and comprehensive fashion to all New Brunswickers, including both the public and decision makers; and, to provide advice to the Government, either unsolicited, or upon request.”

Now that the Grits seemed determined to reinvent the wheel with its own panel of  commissioners, what tidings bode for the Institute? In a brief phone interview last week, David Besner, chair of its Scientific Advisory Council, told me that he is, in effect, waiting and seeing. As for Justice Richard, et. al., and whether or not they will play with the NBEI in the same sandbox, Mr. Besner said, “I haven’t been told anything. . .it’s just what I read (in the newspaper).”

Which, in fact, isn’t very much – though not for lack of sound reporting. Clarity just doesn’t seem to be any government’s forte when it comes to managing natural resources in this province.

When the Tories established the NBEI in 2013, they spent weeks attempting, mostly unsuccessfully, to explain just what the organization was supposed to accomplish. Now, the Grits find themselves with the same rhetorical problem.

To insist that the new panel has “carte blanche” says precisely nothing about its real purpose. Is it to objectively weigh the progress (or lack thereof) on the five conditions the provincial government requires industry to meet before lifting the moratorium on hydraulic fracturing? Or, is it to provide their political masters with a convenient, if respectable, third-party endorsement of its current policies regarding shale gas development?

As Mr. Arseneault says, “It’s a very heated topic. At the same time it’s a very important topic. . .Some people will never change their minds.”

Again, where have we heard that before?

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