Public Still Sceptical About Shale Gas

By Peter Lindfield, published in the Telegraph-Journal 8th June 2012

The Irving Grand Lake Timber sawmill sprawls on the banks of the Salmon River in the centre of the village of Chipman. It employs up to 260 skilled employees and hundreds more in its woodlands operations. Recent upgrades, including a biomass boiler, have reduced the mill’s production costs while making the huge facility more energy efficient and environmentally friendly.

The town appears in many ways locked in an earlier time when many more sawmills across New Brunswick meant good jobs and prosperity for thousands of workers. Except for a small number of modern buildings, such as the sleek new high school, the year could be 1952. Today the Chipman mill is one of the last of its kind.

Chipman was the site of the provincial government’s first in a series of public meetings to discuss its proposed shale gas regulations. Natural Resources Minister Bruce Northrup said that the meetings, to be held in eight communities across New Brunswick until June 25, will provide an opportunity for an in-depth discussion of the proposed measures.

The meeting was held in Chipman’s Community Heritage Centre, a simple two-story brick commercial building constructed as a movie theatre in 1939.

More than an hour before the meeting was scheduled to begin, two RCMP officers had arrived and sat conspicuously in their cruiser across the street. A few people were managing protest signs at the side of the building.

By the time the meeting began, the Heritage Centre had filled to capacity. Two large screens at the front of the room flanked a long desk where Universite de Moncton biologist Louis LaPierre sat facing the crowd. In May, LaPierre had been designated by the provincial government to lead the meetings. More than 100 people had come to hear what the speakers had to say about the regulations that would protect them from the practices of seismic testing and drilling in their neighborhood.

People entering the building were given five documents prepared by the provincial government’s Natural Gas Group. The government had established a Natural Gas Steering Committee in early 2011, directing it to prepare an “Action Plan to ensure that any expansion of the natural gas industry in the Province will take place in a careful and responsible manner.” The Natural Gas Group was composed of experts taken from within government and given the responsibility of developing the Action Plan.

The key discussion documents presented principles for environmental management of shale gas activities and described recommendations for putting the principles into operation. A total of 116 recommendations include 104 short-term recommendations that the Natural Gas Group considers “relevant to the current and anticipated short-term future level of oil and gas activity”.

The meeting presenters focused on a number of potential environmental concerns using nineteen busy PowerPoint slides that drove down to details of the recommendations. The presentation was very measured and appeared calculated to demonstrate that the government group had undertaken an exhaustive review of the risks and challenges associated with the life cycle of shale gas drilling. The government experts who sat with LaPierre at the long table were earnest and knowledgeable in their respective fields.

When the presentation was completed, questions from the floor revealed just how far government and industry will need to go to win the confidence of the public. While each question was posed courteously, it was clear that few were buying the government’s messages. Each remark expressing skepticism about the trustworthiness of the shale gas industry was met by loud applause. One question after another cast doubt on government’s ability to safeguard the environment. The loudest applause was reserved for a questioner’s appeal for a referendum to settle the issue.

The public may not have been supportive in Chipman on this day, but patience, discipline and listening to their concerns will pay sizable dividends. Confidence-building will take time.

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