Fracking debate is here to stay

Sean Thompson - The Political Animal (Tom Bateman/AQ)

In Battlestar Galactica, “frak” is an all-purpose swear word, as in “frak those frakking motherfrakkers.”

In New Brunswick politics, “fracking” is also a four-letter word, albeit one that could have more explosive consequences for Premier David Alward’s government.

Fracking, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, is short for hydraulic fracturing or hydrofracking and is a way to extract natural gas from shale rock. Oversimplified, it involves drilling wells deep into layers of shale rock and pumping a slurry of water, sand, and chemicals into those wells to extract gas from the shale.

Natural gas companies like SWN Resources have eyed central New Brunswick as a shale gas find and this summer conducted seismic testing to see if fracking is feasible.

That testing stopped after vandals caused thousands of dollars in damage to SWN’s equipment, though the company said they’d continue testing next year.

Many people – and not just the usual environmentalist suspects – would like to see SWN and their kind stay away permanently.

Grassroots community groups across the province have united to voice their disapproval of shale gas development.

Groups of protesters have picketed the legislature and provincial hearings on gas exploration throughout the summer. One group even blockaded a road near Stanley, about an hour north of Fredericton, to prevent SWN’s trucks from leaving the area.

Many of these groups have held their own meetings, inviting residents to learn more about the potential dangers of the shale gas industry, including hazardous chemicals (like benzene, naphthalene, and formaldehyde, to list the simpler ones) and risks to drinking water.

Most of those meetings include a showing of the movie Gasland, a persuasive 2010 documentary that looked at the devastating health and environmental effects of the industry in several American communities.

These protesters are, by and large, not fighting for the environment though – at least not directly.

They’re fighting to protect their way of life – rural, pastoral, and idyllic with clean air and safe drinking water. And they pose a significant conundrum for the Alward government.

It thinks shale gas can help fill the province’s gaping financial hole.

New Brunswick is roughly $633 million in the red this year, adding to an impressive $9.5 billion debt.

Alward has already committed to cut spending indefinitely, but this year’s first round of cuts (especially a two per cent cut to education budgets) has been met with complaints that the government is cutting too much.

With the Progressive Conservatives not wanting to raise taxes, the royalties from natural gas development may help government limit the depth of cuts and avoid a repeat of this year’s anger – especially with cuts to equalization and health transfers likely looming.

What’s more, the natural gas industry could bring hundreds or thousands of jobs to parts of the province that desperately need it.

Rural New Brunswick, where the development will happen, is slowly drowning under the rising tide of unemployment, not helped by the fact that its traditional major industry, forestry, is in “managed decline” (read as: “dying slowly”).

Further complicating things for the government is that opposition to shale gas comes from rural areas – the bedrock of Tory support.

Residents are peeved that their protests are falling on apparently deaf ears, especially from a party that rode to power last year on promises to consult and listen to what New Brunswickers think before making controversial decisions.

Alward is risking the trust people have in his government, which could make future cuts or tough decisions harder. And, if the issue has staying power, it could threaten Alward’s chances of re-election in 2014.

If anything, hydrofracking is an issue that won’t die anytime soon, so stay tuned.

Sean Thompson is a fourth-year student studying history at St. Thomas University. His Political Animal column will appear bi-weekly in the Aquinian.

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