June 12, 2012
Earlier this week, the University of New Brunswick and the Université de Moncton put on a conference on the subject of natural resources development in New Brunswick, with a particular focus on the natural gas exploration sector. This was one of the most impressive conferences that I have attended in many years.
Until now, most of the public debate over the natural gas development in New Brunswick has been characterized by rhetoric and sketchy science. A small-town mayor is brought in to warn about the dangers of the industry while the hundreds of mayors with a more sympathetic view were not invited. Of the dozens of academic studies on the impacts and risks of shale gas exploration and production, the author of the one that is most vocally opposed to the industry is the one that ends up touring New Brunswick.
Both of these voices have legitimate points of view. There is no doubt the small-town mayor was sincere in his concern, but when we are looking at the development of a potentially important industry, we must do so armed with a broader understanding. We owe it to New Brunswickers to debate the potential and risks of a natural gas industry in an honest and fair way.
That is exactly what was on display over the two-day conference in Moncton. Of the dozen-or-so speakers representing a wide range of views from adamantly opposed or cautious through to highly supportive, the vast majority was engaged in a research-based based dialogue.
Dr. Tom Al from the earth sciences department at UNB, presented a paper that he and his colleagues prepared on the water-related risks associated with the process of hydraulic fracturing. It was a dry, academic presentation, but it was sweet music to my ears because I finally started to hear some facts about this industry from people that I trust. Dr. Al doesn’t work for any industry group or other vested interest. He just looks at the data and brings forward his expert opinion.
Kit Kennedy, from the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council, provided a broad review of the kinds of things that can go wrong with natural gas exploration and production. Beyond the environmental risks, she covered everything from road damage as a result of truck traffic through to increased visits to local hospital emergency rooms from industrial accidents.
Dr. Marc Duhamel from the Canadian Institute for Public Policy in Moncton discussed the economic risks facing the province, and UNB’s Dr. Michael Haan reminded us of our demographic challenges. These are not incidental considerations when looking at the development of a new industry opportunity.
Natural gas exploration and production is an industrial activity with a variety of risks, and we need to understand these risks. However, red flags go up for me when I hear terms like “industrial wasteland” and see billboards with the phrase “Hello shale gas, goodbye Atlantic salmon.” This kind of hyperbole is meant to scare people rather than inform them.
By the way, the conference also heard from Mark Hambrook of the Miramichi Salmon Association. Another reasoned voice in the debate, Hambrook didn’t see a conflict between natural resources development and the health of the Atlantic salmon but cautioned that the right safeguards need to be in place.
I am not sure any opinions where changed during the conference. I am convinced that people walked away with far more knowledge of this industry than they had before.
I continue to believe that any industrial development requires a “social licence” to operate before it can go ahead. As Steve Carson, CEO of Enterprise Saint John, is fond of saying, “Governments give out permits, but communities give permission.” That is even more true today than it ever was.
But that puts an even greater burden on people we trust to provide us with the information we need to make an informed decision.
Based on what I saw in Moncton this week, we are starting to get there.
David Campbell is an economic development consultant based in Moncton. He writes a daily blog, It’s the Economy Stupid, at www.davidwcampbell.com. His column appears every Wednesday and Saturday.