If you were to list the industries that were the most critical to the unprecedented quality of life that humans enjoy around the world the two at the top would be agriculture and energy. In fact, a massive amount of energy is required to achieve the level of global agriculture production and so you could argue that agriculture and energy go hand in hand.
Yet, for some strange reason, we romanticize agriculture and demonize energy.
This thought ran through my mind as I read the report on shale gas from New Brunswick’s Chief Medical Officer of Health published this week. In addition, I wondered if the Chief Medical Officer in any other province in Canada – but particularly western Canada – would issue such a report demonizing natural gas development.
Several New Brunswick engineers have grumbled to me that the Chief Medical Officer commenting on the environmental risks of shale gas development would be the same as the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of New Brunswick weighing in on the merits of a controversial new pharmaceutical product or surgical technique.
There is some truth to their concern. The Chief Medical Officer is well within her purview to warn governments about public health risks but this report delves into engineering and environmental science where there is no consensus and raises concerns that have been raised by a minority of voices that strenuously oppose the industry’s development in the United States.
Perhaps the strangest part of the report was the warning about the Boomtown Effect. We are told that “[b]oomtown threats such as increases in sexually-transmitted infections (STIs), drug abuse, crime, family violence and prostitution are very real threats unless preventative actions are taken. In addition, poor health of transient workers, displacement of local people due to rising housing costs and temporary communities with poor living conditions (“man camps”) can compound the misery”.
Here we are looking to develop a nascent natural gas industry – which may or may not have any commercial viability at all – and the Chief Medical Officer is warning that shale gas will turn New Brunswick into a third world slum. It’s very condescending and not at all helpful to any kind of constructive dialogue about the development of this industry.
Of course when there is a rise in disposable income and a large construction workforce, there is a greater risk of some of these socially negative impacts but the language used here is stunning.
Let me make the case in favour of the ‘boomtown’.
Boomtowns all over western Canada are generating the tax revenue that is paying, in part, the salary of New Brunswick’s Chief Medical Officer. Many of them are dealing with some challenges related to rapid growth and in-migration such as a lack of housing and elevated levels of crime but nothing at all like that described in this report.
New Brunswick hasn’t really had a boomtown in my lifetime and probably yours. I think most of us would appreciate an influx of high paying jobs and most of them would end up being filled by New Brunswickers (or by repatriating those who have moved away). The increased tax revenues would gird up the public finances as we move into the wave of Boomers heading into retirement.
I’ll reiterate my well-worn views on this. If the public doesn’t want shale gas development, we won’t get it. The Tories will scrap it or the Liberals will scrap it. Either way, it will need a solid level of public support and I don’t see how scaring the public helps in this dialogue.
I watched a TED talk the other day by a Bulgarian political scientist who said that fact-based, iterative debate in the public square has all but disappeared as people have realized that playing on emotion is much more effective than trying to appeal to reason. He blamed behavioral scientists for this trend.
I would have expected more from someone with the prestige of the Chief Medical Officer.