By Peter Lindfield, published in the Telegraph-Journal 1st May 2012
The Université de Moncton and the University of New Brunswick are planning to hold a two-day, science-based forum in June with the objective of discussing the future of the province’s natural resources economy and the positive and negative elements of shale gas development. The event organizers are targeting the participation and involvement of 200 stakeholders from government, opposition, industry, environmental groups, citizens and owners of agricultural property.
The forum will bring a much needed perspective to the shale gas development issue. What it will not do is address the key attribute of the shale gas development phenomenon in New Brunswick. The assumption heading into this event is that science or data will address the fundamental opposition to shale gas drilling. The opposition to shale gas is not only focused on the hazards of drilling. The opposition to drilling today is centered on the outrage expressed by many who no longer trust industry or government to operate in their best interests. And now, the universities are in jeopardy of falling into this black hole.
Shale gas drilling is a prime example of locally unwanted land use that arouses not irrational outrage but quite rational sentiments of not-in-my-back-yard (NIMBY) opposition. From a national, and regional perspective, the product of shale gas wells may indeed be a good thing. Natural gas is a relatively clean source of energy and is environmentally superior to dirty fossil fuels such as coal and oil. But gas wells are not great neighbors. Instead, they are ugly, they are noisy and they are intrusions into people’s lives. While everyone across society may be better off with more shale gas in our future energy portfolio, there is no denying that everyone would better with those gas wells in someone else’s back yard.
Shale gas drilling is not a Frank Gehry-designed factory operation nestled in a corner of the province. Instead, it is a forest of well-head structures, fleets of trucks and other drilling infrastructure dominating the landscape. This approach of downplaying the negative side effects of drilling by appealing to the importance of shale gas to New Brunswick economic development prospects has added insult to injury. Instead of mollifying protestors, it has added the outrage of dishonest disrespect to what are considered to be the substantive downsides of drilling itself.
The gas drilling companies have been aware from the outset that they never stood a chance of persuading opponents that their opposition was irrational, and that shale gas drilling would be a good thing for their neighborhoods. According to this view, protestors in the community are irrational economic development-potential destroying ideologues instead of average citizens attempting to protect their community’s lifestyle and property values.
In the face of this, industry, government and academics have been feigning surprise at the opposition to shale gas in New Brunswick. For some time, proponents have stated that they could not understand how anyone could object to making progress in this critical and desperately needed opportunity of economic development. The forum’s chair, the Université de Moncton’s Roger Ouellette has stated that shale gas is an important question for New Brunswick, which has traditionally relied on a natural resource-based economy and faces fiscal challenges going forward. Some have gone so far as to tie shale gas economic development to the ability of the province to afford entitlements such as health care, education and social assistance. This view, which completely ignores the seething outrage that figures so prominently in this issue, and baldly states that shale gas drilling is necessary to pay for the economic and social entitlements of this province’s citizens, may come back to haunt its proponents.