Tag Archives: hydrofracking

Would fracking turn New Brunswick into North Dakota?


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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The political art of fomenting depression


What’s perplexing about the David Alward government’s decision to spend a few thousand taxpayer bucks on TV ads showing New Brunswickers mourning the state of their province’s economy is not that it reflects poorly on our lawmakers’ vision of the future.

What’s perplexing is that our lawmakers seem to believe it reflects well on their own political fortunes.

Less than a year before the general election, the Tories are bringing up the rear in popular opinion. Poll after poll suggests that if the ballot were held today, they’d lose to Brian Gallant’s Liberals by a wide margin.

This somehow impels the big brains who occupy the small offices reserved for government communications to remind New Brunswickers in convincing fashion, and just before the holidays, that the past three-plus years in office have been an unmitigated disaster for the Progressive Conservatives.

The ads show various men and women, who are presumably en route to the oil-black and money-green pastures of western Canada, hanging out on tarmacks and in airport departure lounges, their brows appropriately furrowed.

“I’ve been going for four years,” says one.

“We haven’t got enough opportunities here, we have to go do it out west,” says another.

Finally, up pops the kicker, accompanied by a stern-sounding VoiceOver: “This message is brought to you by the Government of New Brunswick.”

Now, we witness the game, if untried, Mr. Gallant mumbling under his breath and, indeed, over it: “Thank you, Mr. Alward, you just made my day.”

Of course, in the local media, he sounds more like this:

“New Brunswickers don’t need an ad to tell them that there aren’t enough jobs in New Brunswick. This is an ad that is virtually discouraging people to stay and invest in New Brunswick. It’s even demoralizing.”

To which, Premier Alward retorts, “Every day there are families that are living with separation and we believe there are good options long term to see our economy be stronger, our province be stronger, and our people be able to decide to be here and build their communities here. . .It’s a message to all New Brunswickers that we need to be saying yes to allow development to take place.”

Well. . .no, actually.

It is a message to all New Brunswickers that they are at death’s doorstep, and that their only salvation is via the kool aid of shale gas development, which may or not be true. (It’s too early to know anything with certainty).

What I do know, from my years in the marketing communications and advertising industry (I call them my “lucrative” epoch), is that scaring the bejesus out of people is guaranteed to produce only one, durable response: shoot the messenger.

Again, Mr. Alward, Mr. Gallant thanks you.

What’s intriguing about all of this is just how unnecessary it is.

The Alward government holds all the cards in the shale gas industry deck. Its regulations for development are, purportedly, the toughest in North America. It has the benefit of knowing all the best and worst practices. It even has a scientific panel, convened to guide its decisions (though only The Almighty knows when this efficacious advice will be forthcoming).

What’s more, its foes on this file are, though vocal, largely in the minority.

If it truly wants to win the hearts and minds of the majority, why doesn’t it produce ads that speak directly to the issue – spots that fight the fictions swirling around shale gas with facts?

Why not emphasize the positive attributes of an industry that, properly regulated, could help transform the province’s economy – thanks to the money it will generate for public coffers – into an incubator of commercially viable innovations in sectors not specifically related to resource extraction?

Those who argue that the provincial government has no business using public dollars to promote its economic agenda are, among other things, on the wrong side of history. Governments do this sort of thing all the time. In fact, we expect it of them, especially when they don’t do it. What is tourism, except a giant public-sector promotion campaign?

This Tory reign has staked its mandate on transforming the New Brunswick economy through its responsible stewardship of natural resources. Its most recent ad campaign, however, indicates that it has not yet learned how best communicate this otherwise clear and simple message.

Meanwhile, as goes its mandate, so goes any chance New Brunswick has of seizing its future for its now-departing citizens.

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