When New Brunswick’s MLAs returned to the Legislature on Wednesday, November 23, 2011, there was a crowd to wade through to get into the building.
Thirty anti-shale-gas groups held a public rally at the Legislature to show our MLAs the growing wave of opposition to the government’s plan for developing a shale gas extraction industry in the province.
Some of you may wonder why these people are so upset.
Well, it’s been about a year since most New Brunswickers first learned about shale gas, and most of them found out about it only when the gas companies came around to begin their explorations.
There was no advance notice from the government, so people were taken by surprise. As folks studied and learned more about the industry and its record elsewhere, surprise turned into alarm, and alarm into anger.
Incensed at the lack of consultation and disclosure by their government, New Brunswick citizens wrote letters to the Premier, to Cabinet Ministers and MLAs, only to receive formula political responses that sounded reassuring but never addressed their real concerns.
In the media and at public community meetings, government statements and the gas companies’ talking points were – and continue to be – virtually indistinguishable. Both claim that shale gas extraction can be done safely here, with no damage to people or the environment.
Meanwhile, citizen investigations revealed a growing body of evidence from other jurisdictions of multiple instances of water contamination, air and noise pollution and serious health problems.
When shale gas wells were drilled, people and animals got sick, rivers were polluted, well water was suddenly undrinkable – sometimes even flammable – and property values plummeted.
Arrogant gas companies flouted regulations and denied any responsibility for the problems, and, worse still, governments in those areas turned a blind eye to their citizens’ plight and counted their royalty payments.
It seemed as if that disturbing pattern was being imported to New Brunswick, and people in the exploration zones began to feel not just abandoned by their government, but also about to be sacrificed by it on the altar of economic recovery.
Frustrated citizens began to take up signs, and protest rallies sprang up wherever the gas companies held their well-rehearsed open house presentations.
In August, more than a thousand people from all over the province marched through the streets of Fredericton to the Legislature to air their opposition to the perceived corporate and government conspiracy to impose this dangerous industry on them regardless of the obvious risks.
Another rally in Moncton drew 600 demonstrators. In August, citizens blockaded seismic testing trucks north of Stanley for two days.
While many other jurisdictions placed moratoriums or outright bans on shale gas activity, especially hydraulic fracturing or fracking, New Brunswick pushed ahead with exploration, even suggesting that social programs might collapse without the expected shale gas royalties.
Much public concern about shale gas extraction has been focused on fracking, a process that pumps dangerous chemicals into the earth. In the United States, there have been more than a thousand confirmed cases of water contamination linked to the use and handling of hydraulic fracturing fluids.
While fracking is clearly a high-risk gamble, other aspects of shale gas extraction have guaranteed negative effects. Shale gas extraction involves hundreds, even thousands of wells spread across the landscape.
Every well requires more than a thousand trips over country roads by heavy trucks carrying water or other fluids. Traffic quickly wears out roads designed for much lighter use.
Rural retreats resound with the din of traffic and the constant roar of compressors, endless exhaust fumes foul the air, and pristine country vistas are scarred with snaking pipelines and toxic holding ponds. These aren’t just possibilities; they are shale gas certainties.
It’s hardly surprising that these prospects weigh heavily on the minds of the people who gathered at the Legislature, first on Nov. 19, and again on Nov. 23. After all these months, as negative evidence continues to grow, they feel their government is still minding the budgetary bottom line, instead of representing the long-term best interests of its citizens.
Armand Paul is a writer, editor and project consultant who lives in Durham Bridge.