New Brunswick’s environmental movement is beginning to flex its muscle in communities across the province as citizens attempt to block any future development of the shale gas industry.
Many people associated with the movement are worried that shale gas exploration and in particular the use of hydraulic fracturing, or hydro-fracking, could contaminate their local water sources.
The New Brunswick government has rebuffed repeated calls to impose a moratorium on shale gas exploration or hydro-fracking.
However, groups such as the Conservation Council of New Brunswick have spent months touring the province, speaking to groups, both large and small, about what they see as the perils of the shale gas industry.
David Coon, the executive director of the Conservation Council, and Stephanie Merrill, the freshwater director for the council, wrote in an opinion article for CBC News that they once thought the industry could move forward under strict regulations.
However, the two environmentalists now argue that shale gas should remain locked more than a kilometre below the ground.
"However, [in the last two years] we have learned much and have come to the conclusion that shale gas development cannot be done safely," they argue.
"We learned that shale gas production has high greenhouse gas emissions – something we cannot afford in the desperate race to cut emissions to avoid catastrophic climate change. This is reason enough to leave it locked in the rock."
The Conservation Council has launched a successful campaign to try and show the provincial government that the opposition to shale gas development is widespread.
The council organized a petition with almost 16,000 names on it. The council convinced a Progressive Conservative MLA, Kirk MacDonald, to present the petition inside the legislature.
The move raised eyebrows as MacDonald, a former cabinet minister in the Bernard Lord government, was tabling a petition that ran contrary to his government's policy.
But the four-term MLA said he was not abandoning his party, he was simply responding to the concerns of his constituents.
But it is not just organized lobby groups, such as the Conservation Council that are rallying people against the shale gas industry.
People such as Marlene McClement have become engaged in the spirited debate. And McClement said her personal quest for more information on hydro-fracking has led her to become a bitter opponent of the contentious process.
The Hayesville resident is now a member of the Upper Miramichi Stewardship Alliance and she’s advocating for a total ban on shale gas exploration.
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"The push for shale gas in New Brunswick could destroy all we hold dear; clean air, clean water, abundant wildlife, healthy ecosystems and a quality of life that surely must be the envy of other countries around the world," McClement wrote.
There are nine companies with 71 leases across the province.
There are fewer than 10 wells in New Brunswick that have been horizontally hydro-fracked and the provincial government said there have been no major issues with those wells.
Three shale gas executives said in opinion articles published on Wednesday that they take environmental protection very seriously.
Corridor Resources, which currently is hydro-fracking wells, has agreed to a special phased environmental impact assessment with the provincial government.
Premier David Alward’s government has committed to bringing in a new Environmental Protection Plan in March. And the provincial government has also promised to impose the toughest standards on the shale gas industry, if it proceeds.
But there is still a question about whether the industry will actually move forward.
Natural gas prices are at a two-year low, which may make some projects uneconomical in the current economic climate.
As well, many companies are still in the seismic testing phase and it is unknown whether the shale gas reserves are as rich as predicted or are economically viable to bring out of the ground.
SWN Resources was conducting seismic testing last summer and in some preliminary results released recently, it said it found widespread gas deposits.
While SWN plans to move forward with more tests, that does not mean it is poised to begin production.
What often bothers environmentalists is the way the provincial government has tried to frame the debate over the industry’s future.
Coon and Merrill say the provincial government has tried to blur the possible environmental problems with the lure of new jobs.
"The provincial government has been unrelenting in its focus on creating a "responsible shale gas industry," however it has steadfastly refused to acknowledge that rural communities and families will suffer the collateral damage," they wrote.
"If all New Brunswickers had the opportunity to be part of a real, honest and meaningful dialogue about our province’s economic future, rather than being dismissed as 'misinformed', 'emotional' (read: irrational) or anti-development, perhaps government would come to understand that this is not the road New Brunswickers want to go down."