Dr. Louis LaPierre, a Professor Emeritus in Biology at the Université de Moncton, was hired last June by the Government of New Brunswick to solicit citizen feedback and provide a summary report about regulations and potential plans for large-scale development of a shale gas industry in New Brunswick.
LaPierre’s report, publicly released this week, nicely summarizes the serious concerns New Brunswickers have on shale gas, and legitimately concludes in the final section of Part I (Public Meeting Summary) that “there are some important issues to be addressed by government and industry.” However, the other conclusion in that section, which rules out a moratorium and was picked by mainstream media as a headline, does not follow logically from the content of Part I. Not only is this conclusion unsupported by the data he collected, LaPierre uses fallacious arguments unworthy of his standing as a respected scientist.
To support his conclusion about a moratorium, LaPierre cunningly defines it as “an authorized period of delay or waiting without defining the issues that would be addressed during that period,” and based on this self-crafted definition, he concludes that such a delay “would not advance the debate concerning the major issues surrounding a shale gas industry.”
LaPierre’s first fallacy consists in twisting the meaning of the word ‘moratorium’ under the guise of explaining it, so as to make look reasonable what in reality is an utterly ludicrous point. After reading a common definition of moratorium (“a period of time in which there is a suspension of a specific activity until future events warrant a removal of the suspension or issues regarding the activity”, 700+ Google hits with quotation marks), one can clearly see that if the ‘future events’ determining the end of the moratorium involve ascertaining the safety of the activity, the issues obviously need to be investigated or addressed during the moratorium, otherwise it could not end! Therefore, not only evidence answering the raised concerns can indeed be gathered during a moratorium; this is actually its goal (to prevent harm while the risks, impacts and benefits are fully assessed).
LaPierre continues discrediting his profession when he asserts, in recent interviews about his report, that the experience in other jurisdictions cannot be extrapolated to New Brunswick and therefore we need to allow the industry to experiment here. This is akin to denying the fundamental principle of scientific inference: that nature behaves the same way in different places and times, so that when sufficiently similar situations recur, similar effects follow. Granted, our shale gas formations may differ from others currently exploited, but the cement casing and hydrofracking techniques used by industry are inherently the same in different shale gas plays. And if they have repeatedly failed and polluted elsewhere, why on earth do we need to test them here as Dr. LaPierre suggests? This is not to say that data on local conditions are not required, e.g. groundwater (to his credit, Dr. LaPierre recommends the delineation of major aquifers prior to any exploration). But the gathering of this information is not incompatible with a moratorium as he argues.
Another reason claimed by LaPierre to rule out a moratorium is that it would delay the determination of the economic potential of our shale gas deposits through more exploration and testing. But so would the phased approach he is proposing, which would restrict exploration only to specific areas. In any case, if the government wants to substantiate whether there are economic reserves of shale gas in the province, then they should invest their own money rather than industry money. This way, if the resource is found, it can be kept underground until the time is right for the province. Otherwise, the companies investing in the exploration are legally entitled to extract the resource as soon as they can make a profit, therefore depleting this asset before it becomes a strategic, more profitable resource in the future. Given the projections on natural gas price and the concerns about current technology, the right time (when returns to the province are maximized and risks minimized) is certainly not within this or next decades, and neither will the gas evaporate in the meanwhile.
LaPierre finishes the conclusion section with yet one more fallacy, a false dichotomy: “It is only through a rational, science-based process and structured dialogue – not a moratorium – that we can assess the issues associated with shale gas”, as if a moratorium was incompatible with such a process. By adding unsupported material about a moratorium in the conclusion section, LaPierre is departing from the standards of scientific writing. By using fallacious arguments to support it, he is tainting his reputation and exposing his claims of impartiality. The media should also be more careful and, rather than using their source’s reputation or rank as proof, verify the soundness of a conclusion before making it a headline.
In conclusion, if the government is intending to use LaPierre’s report as a political weapon to rule out a moratorium on shale gas, they should be aware that the arguments he puts forward will not stand the scrutiny of New Brunswickers who passed grade five at school (LaPierre allegedly strove to keep the text at that level). And if they continue avoiding the fundamental issue of public consent, they will no longer need to ask for it after the next elections.