New Brunswick

Shale gas exploration threatens sustainability

Cecelia Brooks argues against shale gas development and calls for stronger environmental protection standards.

A series of special op-eds written on the shale gas industry

Cecelia Brooks is the Water Grandmother with the Canadian Rivers Institute at the University of New Brunswick and Science Advisor to the Assembly of First Nations Chiefs of New Brunswick.

As Water Grandmother, she works in the First Nations communities to provide technical support in water related issues impacting First Nations people.

She is the author of the chapter on Indigenous (Traditional) Knowledge in the State of the Environment Report on the St. John River published this summer.

As the science advisor to the chiefs, she provides technical support to the chiefs of New Brunswick on all issues that impact the environment.

Hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as hydro-fracking, is the current hot button topic in New Brunswick.

Hydro-fracking, in its current form, is less than a decade old and is a process of extracting natural gas by injecting water, sand and powerful chemicals under very high pressure into the earth. This injection causes the shale formation to crack and release the gas.

Opponents of hydro-fracking have many concerns about water and air being contaminated by the chemicals used and released in the hydrofracking process. 

These concerns include the unknown destination of gas that is not extracted and the effects of drilling blowouts, where drillers cannot control the gas flow and it explosively shoots out of the ground into the surface environment. These concerns were highlighted in the Academy Award-winning documentary film Gasland; a thought-provoking film about Pennsylvanian citizen Jeff Fox’s journey to find out about hydro-fracking.

Although some of the information in the film has been disputed by industry and government, some of the data comes directly from U.S. government research. 

For example, it is mentioned that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recorded a dramatic increase in air pollution in previously pristine rural and remote areas to levels above smoggy Los Angeles, after hydro-fracking operations began. 

Government should be a leader

As a First Nations person, a Wolastoqi (Maliseet), a citizen of New Brunswick and an environmental scientist, I think it is a travesty that our government has not taken the lead in ensuring that the rights of First Nations as well as the citizens of New Brunswick are protected in relation to the development of the hydro-fracking industry in our province.

The First Nations people have an intimate relationship with the land that can best be conveyed as the concept that we view the earth as the mother of all living things. Because we view the Earth and all living things as being related we cannot tease out the pieces as is done in the resource extraction sector.

This understanding of the inter-connected relationship between all living beings is part of what has given us the ability to survive on this land for millennia. Recent archaeological evidence has established that the First Nations people have been in this region for at least 12,000 thousand years.

The descendents of many European settlers have also lived on this land now called New Brunswick for many generations and have also formed a strong connection to the land. 

The relationship between the early settlers and the First Nations people is clearly outlined in our Peace and Friendship Treaties. These treaties are unique in that they were agreements to live harmoniously on this land as we did not cede the land for monetary gain or exchange of any kind.

Unfortunately, the government of New Brunswick has not upheld the honour of the Crown by honouring the treaties.

Instead they continue to act on our behalf in activities that have resulted in massive degradation of the land that the First Nations call mother earth. As the shrinking Crown lands are further impacted by the fracking industry the people of New Brunswick will lose again. 

Loss of culture

First Nations, in particular, will lose more of their culture with this land loss.  Many social and physical ills continue to plague the First Nations as we rise out of the effects of being sequestered on small reservations, being forced to attend residential schools and limited in our access to the land. 

I would venture to say that many of the ills society at large faces today are linked to a lack of connection to the land.

As the people of New Brunswick, we need to proceed in the spirit of the precautionary principle, and heed the warnings we have been alerted to by the fast movement of the shale gas industry through the U.S., other parts of Canada and the New Brunswick community of Penobsquis. 

We need to better understand the full impacts that hydro-fracking can have on the land and water and air. Continuing to apply the notion that "if it does not kill us …" has contributed to increases in health problems directly linked to the health of the land. 

New Brunswickers have the highest rates of cancer and multiple sclerosis in the nation; both conditions are linked to exposure to environmental contaminants. 

Our government and industries continue to dangle the idea that jobs  in the shale gas industry are vital to our economy, but what has our government done to develop industries that could see long-term sustainability for the lands and jobs for our people.

Our beautiful province has the fortune of having some of the most breathtaking landscapes and highest levels of biodiversity in the nation if not the world.

These beautiful places can be maintained and jobs created through eco-tourism and the development of non-timber forest products (NTFPs), such as wild mushrooms. The wild mushroom industry alone brings millions of dollars of revenue to the province of British Columbia. 

We have a wide range of NTFPs that could be developed to create sustainable jobs for rural New Brunswickers.  Why should we take a gamble on such an uncertain prospect for jobs if what we do now could erase the possibility of ever developing sustainable industries like eco-tourism and NTFPs? 

Who would want to visit a landscape riddled with well pads and who would want to buy mushrooms or other wild foods from contaminated lands?  Our tourism industry comprises three per cent of our gross domestic product.

Environmental performance

This sector of our economy could be greatly enhanced to create sustainable jobs and re-elevate Canada’s international standing on the Environmental Performance Index (EPI). 

In 2008, we ranked eighth for our environmental performance then dropped to 46th in 2010.

Other jurisdictions have seen the benefits of investing in the environment.

Costa Rica is one such place that has benefited financially as well as environmentally by developing their eco-tourism industry.  With 25 per cent of the Costa Rican lands devoted to protected areas they are enjoying the many benefits of preserving biodiversity while people are working at sustainable jobs.

Currently their national GDP in eco-tourism is more than $2 billion. 

The oil and gas sector is known to be a boom and bust industry, so why are we investing in a short-term solution to our financial woes if we are planning to be here for the long-term? We should also be questioning the future of the thousands of abandoned wells that these industries will leave behind. 

There is evidence that these wells are wreaking havoc on the U.S. water supply. The current disposal method of choice for the produced or used water from hydro-fracking has been to inject it back into the ground in what is known as deep well injections. 

There are studies underway to determine whether deep injection wells have been the cause of recent earthquakes in the United States and abroad. 

Excessive water usage and waste will be the legacy we leave to our children and grandchildren if we do not curb our appetite for oil and gas.

The First Nations planning benchmark for what the mainstream refers to as resources is to look seven generations ahead.  Some New Brunswickers’ of European descent have been here for seven generations. 

What would our water and air look like today if they had hydro-fracked seven generations back?

In the spirit of the peace and friendship treaties we need to work together as people of New Brunswick to make sure this land, what we as First Nations call our mother, can continue to sustain us.