Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ The Calculations Around Fracking

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jun 27, 2011

In response to David W. Campbell, who writes of the fracking issue, "I think a government could be brought down over shale gas. It seems quite easy to whip up public anger over these types of flash point issues. I suspect, but hope I am wrong, the Liberals will try to make this an election issue. A shame, really."

There's more than just the Liberals and Conservatives in New Brunswick. I could easily imagine the New Democrats making gains opposing shale gas exploration should both Liberals and Conservatives support it. Part of the calculation the Liberals will be making is whether the NDP is strong enough to make Liberal support for exploration come back and bite them.

For my own part, while I can see the benefits of oil and gas exploration (I did, after all, live in Alberta for 17 years) I can also see the risks. We will always be assured that the technology is perfectly safe, but what that means in practice is 'safe to a certain degree of precision', where this can be precisely defined as the financial risk posed by failure as compared to the cost of more stringent measures. For the oil industry, it's a financial calculation, not a political calculation; people know this, and that's what makes political support politically risky.

So to be clear: support for exploration (and presumably, extraction, without which there would be no point to exploration) is support for the economic development the industry provides despite the risks. Reassurances won't make the risks go away; support therefore entails embracing the risks. So the province (and/or the Liberals, in opposition) need to be clear about the *political* calculation that will be undertaken around the risks: how much more over financial expediency will the exploration companies have to commit, how much more over that calculation will the province cover?

The good side of it is, fracking isn't particularly risky. Goodness, we could be talking about sour gas, offshore drilling or oil sands, things that entail real risk. The worst that could happen is that some wells go dry, or lose their quality. The political calculation balances the cost of replacement reliable water supply minus the contribution toward that risk economically viable for the exploration company. Given good baseline measurements (underway now) this risk should be assumable.

So: the Liberals and New Democrats should logically come out with much the same stance, silent publicly on support for the exploration, supportive in the back room, willing to offer financial support (but not beyond what potential royalties would reimburse), and visibly vocal on the need for clearly defined measures to protect New Brunswickers in the event that the long shot comes in and the water supply is disrupted. The Tories, meanwhile, tke the public risk of supporting the project, but reap the political reward if everything goes well, which is (to my estimation) better than even money.

Sound political calculations all round, and ones that would provide us with a gas industry, if there is one to be had.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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