Chris Walker interviews Susan Machum, Canada Research Chair on Rural Social Justice at St. Thomas University, on shale gas and rural communities in New Brunswick.
Chris Walker: You have argued that rural communities are disproportionately targeted for government cost cutting because they represent smaller proportions of the population and you characterize this as a form of bullying. Where does fracking fit in all this?
Susan Machum: Bullying occurs when someone with a disproportionate amount of power picks on someone with less power. Right now essential services are being cut in rural communities and these decisions are being made at the provincial level. The rural communities don’t get a say in the matter and it is the same with fracking. Who decided that there should be fracking in the province? The provincial government invited these companies to come and explore for natural gas and the people who are going to be most affected have no voice in the decision making process. Therefore, these people have to go and march on the sidewalk and protest in order to try to have a voice. This tells us that rural residents are not equal, they are not treated with respect, and that they will have to stay outside and protest while these important decisions are made without them. For most people it’s kind of obvious that the communities which are going to have these machines in them should be part of the decision making process – but that is not how policy is formed.
CW: How do you respond to the argument that rural New Brunswick is poor, underdeveloped, and that fracking, at least in the immediate term, is one way to stimulate rural economic development?
SM: Every time we look for economic growth the resources come out of rural communities. That’s true whether we are looking at Canada, Latin America or Indonesia. It’s rural communities that supply the urban centers with everything they need – wood, food, minerals, fuels and so on. The dazzling lights of the city exist because the urban siphons off resources from the rural. If you look at the scholarly work on underdevelopment, the modern day equivalent to the periphery-centre debate is rural-urban relations: the ‘underdevelopment’ of rural communities is directly linked to urban growth.
CW: So what are we going to get if we let these companies come in and exploit our natural resources?
SM: First of all, are they New Brunswick companies? No they’re not. So the profits are going to leave the province. Are they going to hire New Brunswick workers? No. They are going to bring in their own workers who are familiar with fracking technology. They will parachute in and when there are no more resources to extract they will go on their way, leaving a host of environmental and health problems in their wake.
In the end all we will get are some royalties – and where are these royalties going to go? Into the provincial coffers to shore up the budget. Is this money going to be reinvested into rural communities? I can’t see it happening. We are told that these communities are a drain on the economy, we can’t afford to plow their roads, we can’t provide 24-hour medical services, and we can’t afford to keep their local schools open. Is it reasonable to expect that these royalties are going to turn things around and save these communities? No. What we are witnessing is a resurgence of the 1960’s modernization model that was prescribed for the “third world;” it failed then and it is going to fail now. We don’t have new ideas; we just have new resources to exploit.
CW: Environment Minister Peter Kent has indicated that the federal government has the power to ban fracking if it were deemed a “significant broad environmental risk.” What is your assessment of this?
SM: Governments don’t tend to see any kind of business development as an environmental risk. They are concerned with economic growth and expansion. The new UN platform on sustainable development focuses on “green growth,” so it is a growth model but with minor changes. Similarly, when we talk about “clean energy” all we mean is clean at the point of production. In this regard, nuclear energy is considered “clean” – it leaves waste that will be around for generations, it poses massive environmental risk as in the case of Japan, but it is considered “clean.”
The whole conversation assumes there can be no discussion about economic goals other than increasing consumption and production. If you look at what economists are saying about this upcoming Christmas they are really worried. They think we will maintain last year’s level of consumption or perhaps show growth on the order of 1%. This has a lot of people worried. For the environment it’s actually a good thing but for the economists it’s a real problem that has to be addressed. So yes, Peter Kent is correct, the government does have the authority to ban fracking, but it is highly unlikely they would ever take such steps.
CW: So what do you recommend to concerned citizens?
SM: I think they are doing the right things already. They are organizing, they are talking, and they are trying to tell people about the risks fracking poses. They are resisting and we need to support them in their efforts.
Chris Walker grew up in Sussex and now lives in Fredericton with his wife and two daughters. He studied global
political economy and Canadian labour history at Athabasca University.