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New Brunswick shows Quebec there's no need to fear shale gas development

Appeared in La Presse
Release Date: February 22, 2011
Once formerly too expensive to produce, shale gas has suddenly become one of the hottest commodities in North America as advanced technologies such as horizontal drilling and multi-stage hydraulic fracturing have made recovery of the gas viable, even at relatively low prices.

Here in Quebec, various companies are interested in the prospect of producing gas from the Utica shale formation in the St. Lawrence Lowlands which is thought to hold at least 40 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of recoverable gas. But while communities from British Columbia, to Texas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Arkansas have embraced shale gas development and the accompanying economic benefits, Quebec appears timid in the face of this opportunity, with calls for a moratorium on development of the resource.

Instead Quebec should look to New Brunswick, which is moving ahead to develop its shale gas resource, with comprehensive and appropriate regulations in place from the outset to ensure that the environment will be protected.

Experience from shale gas development in British Columbia and elsewhere suggests that, although geographical conditions vary from region to region, Quebec’s shale resource can be developed  responsibly with due regard for the environment. The government of Quebec can promulgate whatever regulations necessary to protect the environment and ensure property owners receive appropriate compensation for allowing natural gas operators to access their land. All a moratorium would accomplish would be to deny the people of Quebec the economic benefits that can be realized from responsible development, including potential reductions in personal and corporate income taxes because of the royalties that would flow to the provincial government from the shale gas producers.

Instead of blindly blocking development, New Brunswick is embracing the opportunity to develop its shale resources which are thought to be as large as 60 Tcf.  According to Bruce Northrup, New Brunswick’s natural resources minister, the New Brunswick government “supports responsible expansion of the natural gas sector while ensuring the safety and security of homeowners and our groundwater supply. … All of us want to see exploration and development done in an environmentally responsible fashion in order to ensure that we can gain the economic benefits possible for our province.”

The New Brunswick government is confident that its present legislative framework is more than adequate in light of the current low level of activity there, which is primarily exploratory in nature. The province has introduced a “Phased Environmental Impact Assessment” process to enable proper planning and address issues raised by concerned citizens. This means that potential environmental impacts must be identified before a project is implemented so that negative impacts can be avoided.  

In order to fully understand how the industry operates in other jurisdictions, Northrup and colleagues from New Brunswick’s energy ministry and environment ministry, recently visited shale gas producing sites in Arkansas where the Fayetteville shale formation extends over 9,000 square miles and some 3,000 wells have been drilled. There they saw how the shale gas industry has ignited the economy and, according to Northrup, transformed Arkansas to a have from a have-not state. More importantly, they met with landowners, environmentalists, personnel with the gas-producing companies, regulators and politicians to learn first hand about the environmental challenges and concerns in relation to shale gas development and how they are being met.

This is just one part of the province’s outreach program to develop an appropriate framework for shale development. New Brunswick officials have learned that it is essential to have gas well operators provide detailed information on the quantities of water that they plan to use and a full accounting of other materials that they plan to inject at the wellhead to facilitate the ‘fracing’ of shale rock deep below the earth’s surface. Also, the importance of recycling as much of the water that is injected as possible to ensure there will be adequate water supplies for agriculture and other uses.  

While New Brunswick is eager to optimize the economic benefits of shale gas development for its citizens, the government knows that high standards of environmental protection are necessary. New Brunswick is laying the groundwork for potential large-scale yet responsible development the province’s shale gas resource.  

Would Quebec not be better off by following New Brunswick’s lead, rather than simply saying “No” to shale gas development?