Experts Cannot Settle Shale Gas Issues

Published in the Telegraph-Journal 19th March 2012

Shale gas drilling involves an exotic cocktail of water, sand and up to 600 chemicals used in the fracking fluids, lubricants and drilling muds. These chemicals include xylene, sodium hydroxide, benzene, carbon disulfide and naphthalene. Hydrofracking can have potentially devastating effects on the water table. Environmentalists claim that the drilling process poses substantial risks of gas leakage, explosions, contamination and discharge of radiation. The available methods for containing or mitigating these risks and the effectiveness of those methods may not be adequate to the task. With many gas wells, a substantial amount of contaminated water is at risk of escaping and there are uncertainties over where it will go and how it will be stored.

If any of these risks are accurate, it is not likely that public support for shale gas drilling will be found in New Brunswick.

But it may be that these risks have not been accurately portrayed, that the benefits far exceed the costs and that many of the facts simply are not yet known. Industry insists that hydrofracking is safe and that its risks have been wildly overblown. And government claims that the risks, once indentified, can be managed with the appropriate regulations, monitoring and enforcement mechanisms.

Whom should we believe?

For those who are resolutely committed to opposing fracking, the environment is at risk. But a substantial number of New Brunswickers say they want facts and figures from independent evidence and are seeking reasoned discussions presenting both sides. They are concerned about shale gas but undecided about whether to support its development. And in the absence of discussions focused squarely on the public interest, this undecided group is still attempting to determine who and what to believe.

The public relations problems that surround shale gas drilling in many ways stem from the inability of technical experts to satisfy the public’s need for reassurance and forthrightness. But some of the concerns that revolve around shale gas are not technical ones. Some ask whether the number of jobs created, or the revenues generated will adequately compensate for the additional risks in people’s lives. Those concerned about the practical implications of hydrofracking, even on adjacent properties, will want to know how close proximity to heavily traveled roadways may have a negative effect on the marketability and value of their land. People are concerned about a possible decline in the value of their property and whether the development of a mining physical infrastructure is consistent with traditional New Brunswick values. These are lifestyle issues and clearly outside the scope of the expertise of geologists, economists and mining experts.

There is no doubt that, while the technical aspects of hydrofracking inherently are data driven, there are issues that cannot be addressed by scientific findings. Yet we continue to insist that a superior discussion will inevitably be one that is underpinned by data, statistics and mathematical expertise as though this objectivity will intervene to solve our problems.

The reality poses a stark contrast to this view. In the West, the history of the social contract reinforces a key theme that, once we no longer subscribe to the assumption that we can only become knowledgeable by being exposed to expertise, we can recognize and value the knowledge, wisdom and skills that we have gained, often informally, on our own. This lesson of history is worth remembering; citizens do not need to be highly trained, narrowly specialized and technically qualified to take their place among others in a community of interest. The notion that debates should be driven by data rather than ideology diminishes the alternative to this polarization. Debates can be driven not only by a technocratic understanding of the facts but by informed judgement.

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Filed under Environment policy, Social contract

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