by Donna McLellan

The New Brunswick government’s introduction of a moratorium on shale gas development, confirming its pre-election commitment, was a great relief to the thousands of NB residents who are opposed to the industry.  People are relieved, but skeptical.

Those who are familiar with New Brunswick’s political and economic history know that the province has been, for many decades, a fierce supporter of the oil and gas industry… and that resource development – from forestry to oil and gas exploration – has never been questioned.  Until now.

signsThe skepticism on the part of many residents has been provoked by recent Brunswick News articles that have turned the government’s intention “that we will impose a moratorium until the risks to the environment, health and water are understood,” into industry’s interpretation: “to develop a timeline for lifting the ban on shale gas exploration in the province”.  It might be worth mentioning here that a ban is a permanent decision, it cannot be lifted. A moratorium, however, is temporary.

All five conditions that must be met to sanction the establishment of a shale gas industry in the province will be met only if both industry and government are willing to learn, understand and act upon the many experiences and associated research that has been provided by jurisdictions around the world.

New Brunswick’s Five Conditions

  1. Clear and credible information –  The government plans to convene a committee of experts to accumulate and assess information on whether shale gas is safe or not.  Who will be on this panel and will it be stacked by phony experts like Louis LaPierre?  Will they welcome some members of the anti-fracking fraternity as well as those connected to business and industry?  Will they examine any or all of the 400 peer-reviewed scientific studies that are available, all of which unequivocally state that shale gas exploration cannot be practiced in a manner that does not threaten human health?  Or, will they come up with bogus industry sponsored information that says it’s okay if the proper regulations are in place?
  2. An infrastructure plan – The aforementioned studies include much information on the dilemma of fracking wastewater disposal. It can’t be treated in ordinary chemical treatment plants or through sewage treatment facilities.  Wastewater is most commonly stored in open ponds or re-injected back into the Earth, both methods have serious repercussions that lead to land and water contamination and human exposure to dangerous chemicals.
  3. Maximized benefits –The government can speculate on different revenue streams and royalty structures, but documents from heavily fracked areas indicate that the cost to produce shale gas exceeds the revenues received.
  4. Aboriginal consultation – After the Supreme Court decision on Aboriginal land claims, it is not consultation that is required, it is consent.
  5. Social license – The definition of Social License is:  “a local community’s acceptance or approval of a company project or ongoing presence in an area.  It is recognized by stakeholders and communities as a prerequisite to development”.  Social License requires that public policy puts human well being and environmental protection before corporate gain.

social_licenseSocial License to Operate is a phrase that was coined by the mining industry 15 years ago, coincidentally, around the time that un-conventional shale oil and gas mining was starting.  This new technology that started in Texas in 1999 is a far more complex and hazardous process than the conventional gas exploration that has been in practice since the turn of the 20th century.

This new industry was commenced in secret, with no information given to municipalities about the questionable methods it uses. The deep wells using chemicals, water and sand to shatter the shale rock, increased air and water pollution inevitable through methane flaring and underground leaks of gas that pollute aquifers, were all unknown to residents unfortunate enough to be living near these early drilling sites.

As people connected their proximity to gas wells with ill health, contaminated water, noise and traffic, the idea of prior consultation and consent became a “social license”, a way to protect citizen’s rights.  The once popular notion of Corporate Social Responsibility touted by industry has failed to take the practical steps necessary to protect local communities.  Social License and Corporate Social Responsibility are very different concepts.

Social License recognizes the significance of a community’s right to protect itself, decisions made by the public for the public good, whereas, Corporate Social Responsibility is a voluntary obligation and depends entirely upon industry’s goodwill.

Social License to Operate is granted when good relations are established, long before development begins.

Social License rejects antisocial practices such as unfair wages, gender discrimination, child labor and unacceptable risks to the environment.  It cannot be regulated by government or industry and so has become fundamental to individual and community rights, stressing transparency, accountability, clarity and due diligence.

In a world where corporations want to be increasingly involved in delivering essential goods and services, from health care to clean water, Social License is clearly linked to the effort to recover democracy.  When Social License takes the moral high ground social risks are considerably reduced.  There are some industrial technologies that are so inherently harmful that they will never be able to brook the concerns and disapproval of a community that feels threatened by their activities.

The demand for Social License by Indigenous, French and English people in N.B. might be the biggest obstacle that the government will have to deal with if the industry seriously challenges the moratorium.  Government and industry can whitewash information, dither about royalties and find willing municipalities for wastewater, but the final outcome may depend on people in communities across the province that continue to say NO to shale gas.

Donna McLellan is a member of the Tantramar Alliance Against Hydraulic Fracturing