Fredericton – The unveiling of New Brunswick’s Oil and Gas Blueprint comes during an upswing of vigilance and organizing by those whose backyards are slated for shale gas exploration.
Craig Leonard, New Brunswick’s Minister of Energy and Mines, released the Blueprint to a handful of reporters in Fredericton on May 9th.
The announcement came just two weeks after 29 community groups, representing over 50,000 New Brunswickers, had written to shale gas licence and lease holders, telling them to stay home.
The letter from community groups may be the least of Leonard and the Alward government’s worries. Since January, people in Kent County have been gearing up for the appearance of “thumper trucks” and keenly watching out their kitchen windows for signs of shale gas exploration work.
During the first weekend of May, 80 people took lessons on non-violent civil disobedience in St. Charles and Moncton, aided by veteran civil organizer Philippe Duhamel of Quebec City and Angela Giles, the Atlantic Regional Organizer with the Council of Canadians.
Nicole Richard is an organizer with Our Environment, Our Choice, a Kent County-based group that formed over concerns to shale gas. “We’ve been doing a lot of indirect actions like trying to get our MLAs to speak out on our behalf, signing petitions and sending letters and we saw nothing being done to protect us from shale gas. It’s good to go to Fredericton to try and be heard but we quickly learned that no one was listening to us, “ says Richard, who helped to organize the workshop on direct action.
SWN Resources, the largest shale gas license holder in the province, has not knocked on Richard’s door like they have on her neighbour’s doors in St. Charles but the RCMP has. “I think it’s about intimidating us. The RCMP officer said they were just letting us know that they were here to protect us but I don’t think we need protecting from ourselves. We need protection from shale gas,” says Richard.
When asked how public health was addressed in the Oil and Gas Blueprint, Minister Leonard replied that researchers in the new Energy Institute can “collaborate” with [Chief Medical Officer of Health] Dr. Eilish Cleary. Environment Minister Bruce Fitch who was also in attendance for the release of the Blueprint said, health impact measures “may be incorporated into the environmental impact assessment process.”
The Chief Medical Officer has recommended that public health impact assessments be a precondition to shale gas development. However, the government of New Brunswick is not heeding Dr. Cleary’s recommendation but rather planning to deal with public health as it relates to shale gas on a project-by-project basis, with no nod to the cumulative effects of increasing industrialization, social problems or other well-documented human health impacts of the industry.
To a packed classroom at St. Thomas University on May 8th, Dr. Cleary said that health and social problems are worse in jurisdictions with greater income disparity. She spoke of a “health gradient” where the greater the number of impediments (illiteracy, for example) the harder it is to achieve good health. New Brunswick’s illiteracy rate is one of the highest in Canada, with over half, 53 per cent, of high school graduates functionally illiterate, according to Statistics Canada in 2012.
Leonard’s announcement also included the government’s intentions to pursue offshore oil and gas drilling in New Brunswick’s marine zones, namely the Bay of Fundy and the environmentally sensitive Gulf of St. Lawrence. New Brunswick has been considering re-opening its offshore areas to oil and gas for several years now; a few test wells drilled in the 1970s came up dry.
When interviewed after the release, New Brunswick Green Party Leader David Coon said the report was much ado about nothing, with no new regulations, programs, resources (other than the Energy Institute) or muscle to deal with shale gas impacts. Coon was the sole political party leader in attendance. The Green Party wants shale gas left in the ground, and for government to focus on creating jobs that are not dependent on fossil fuels.
“There’s nothing new here. It’s all ‘we’ll continue to do what we’re doing’ and ‘we’ll keep pace with’ development of the industry, which basically says zero concrete about how they’re going to protect people and their water,” Coon said. “We have seen the beginnings of a well monitoring program—that’s it. In terms of having adequate enforcement personnel on the ground, the Blueprint leaves vast areas of New Brunswick and residents to fend for themselves, and that’s not acceptable.”
Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” for shale gas has been clearly linked to water contamination in many places in the United States, but those concerns have been repeatedly dismissed by the Alward Conservatives. In fact, the week after the Blueprint release, the Scranton Times-Tribune published an article based on Request to Information data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection linking cases of water contamination with oil and gas activity there.
The province’s Blueprint commits to developing a comprehensive water management plan and an air quality monitoring study, but not until 2016, which will “keep up with industry development” rather than having industry required to meet environmental thresholds. Meanwhile, Water and Environmental Protection Albert County, a citizen-based group, report that up to 35 wells near Hillsborough and Stoney Creek may be fracked for oil and gas this year, leading one to question how these projects may be safely grandfathered without a broader regulatory framework in place.
Residents in Kent and Albert Counties, the regions flagged for exploration this summer, have set up a Facebook page to announce signs of the industry’s impending presence. Followers have been posting images of flagging tape, slashes through the forest and hovering helicopters.
Residents say they want to be familiar with the signs of exploration so they can quickly mobilize when the time comes to hinder or block industry progress. Their training in non-violent civil disobedience has prepared them to resist government policy they feel is morally wrong and unjustified. Unfortunately, for people in the drill rigs’ path, the Oil and Gas Blueprint does little to assuage these concerns. It may have only strengthened their resolve to push back.
Hundreds participated in Walk the Block rallies in Hillsborough and Riverside-Albert in Albert County in early 2013 to show their opposition to the granting of approvals for oil and gas development in the county and province. Hillsborough Village Council passed a resolution in March calling upon the government of New Brunswick to stop all approved gas and oil activities within 4 km of village limits and 4 km from water supplies, both above and below ground. According to Minister of Energy and Mines Craig Leonard, there are no justifications to cease oil and gas activity at this point.
It seems it is going to be a long, hot summer in Albert and Kent counties, as residents tire of being ignored despite repeatedly voicing their concerns. Richard puts it bluntly: “It’s up to us now.”
M.L. Sheppard is a Fredericton-based activist.