Bring on the boomtown

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.

18 thoughts on “Bring on the boomtown

  1. Well said. I was stunned to here the about this so-called “boomtown effect” and its social harms yesterday on the radio. In my eyes, these statements are highly detrimental to the credibility of the chief medical officer.

  2. With the forthcoming resetting of the equalization table it is hard to see N.B.gaining a better position than it currently has. How long will others send money to fund a self identified N.B. life style. Comments like these from the medical profession will drive away badly needed investment at a time when it is sorely needed.

  3. Good article! I too was surprised at the mandate creep represented by her report. By introducing income distribution as a health issue, Cleary is setting the stage to consider income disparity to rationalize her intervention in a wide range of government policy-making. We could do away with the Legislature in that case.
    Most importantly, I didn’t see any costing of her recommendations and wonder if she even considered the cost benefit. She is proposing the expenditure of scarce public funds. But, she hasn’t made a case based on the probability of there being a problem requiring this scale of policy intervention. As for boomtown, I rather doubt that NB gas industry will amount to a mole hill given the reputation we are developing.
    Having said that, in a perfect world, and with $14 gas, I’m sure the industry & government could do a lot more than they are doing to address some key issues, particularly local impacts like air quality. Her recommendations in section 5 are reasonable, in my opinion.

  4. As is often the case, Michael Edwards gets to the nub of things. Air quality, waste water disposal, impact on rural roads – all valid concerns that need to be addressed.

  5. We do not need more studies, test, and other BS. This is only a stall tactic! We have had oilfield regulations in Canada for years. They seem to work just fine in Alberta(Who have been drilling and fracturing for about 100 years) Who are we as NB’ers to make up new rules and regulations? Most of these people that will “improve” the rules have never stepped foot on an oilfield lease!

  6. @David Campbell
    Thank you David! I would also add to your list the need for a comprehensive development strategy. It could address some of Cleary’s concerns. By limiting government to a reactionary stance we will only ever have technical regulations and they will only address the narrow concerns du jour. Without an up front strategy govt approach will be like Swiss cheese…full of holes.

  7. I agree Jason. All of the garbage spouted around the Province about burning water taps and ruined water aquifers has been debunked by various US Government Agencies. In any case, even if it wasnt, this is not the USA and Canada has proven to the world that we can produce oil and gas safely and effectively.I think we should leave the medical society to study and comment on medical issues, not energy policy. We have the expertise in Engineers and oil industry workers so we dont need to look to the medical society for the operation of a safe and sustainable O&G Industry here in NB.

  8. I have no problem the Dr. Cleary’s authority to be concerned for the health of New Brunswickers; in fact, the government asked for this report. Upon reading the report though, I get the distinct feeling that it is the work of someone who is personally against the expansion of this industry and her personal bias is showing. We already have a record here in NB, and excellent one; let’s review everything that has been done and keep doing it….exactly the same way. Dr. Cleary is sounding just like another ‘anti’ by looking for all the ‘what-ifs’! Science needs to be front and centre here, not fear!

  9. Given the present experience in North Dakota, I think it is appropriate for a Medical Health Officer ot discuss the effects of “boomtowning”. I live next to what was once a “boomtown” – Albert Mines, and the only evidence of this 130-year-old boomtown is a pile of junk rock, and some undereducated families (I can tell you the story of that one)

    Similarly, one could describe Amherst or Springhill as “boomtowns” that now have just a shadow of what they had at the peak, let alone downtown Moncton that is still dealing with railroad effluents generations after the tracks were taken out.

    I know that people with primary interest in economics cannot understand the total cost of anything. The dismal science is pretty good at ignoring the real world.

    I, or we, will have to live with the unaccounted costs for ever if the economists have their way.

    If you can’t handle someone saying something that is real, maybe you shouldn’t be writing columns that appear in public.

  10. @Eustace
    Again another reference to the US… Compare apple to apples! Our regulations are nothing like there’s…. Find your examples from AB or Sask. Then you’ll have people’s attention!

  11. “Similarly, one could describe Amherst or Springhill as “boomtowns” that now have just a shadow of what they had at the peak,”

    Are you suggesting that those developments should never have taken place? Those who had good jobs there might disagree. Boom and bust is the nature of extraction of non-renewable resources; does that mean we should never extract them?

    When timber prices recover, NB might see some sawmills re-open. Will Cleary campaign against that because of a fear of ‘boomtown effects’?

  12. To be fair, our regulations are often WORSE than in the US. Its never been discussed since, but I can recall Bernard Lord going to the National Energy guys in Calgary to complain that New Brunswick wasn’t getting fair royalties from the gas pipeline that runs through the province. They actually AGREED, but didn’t do anything about it, they said they’d “study it”. Not a word since.

    And Canada’s record on the environment is quite often far worse than the americans, and currently the feds are trying to get out of it altogether. And in NB….come on….this is a province that not only welcomed Bennett Environmental, a company so crooked that even Mike Harris’ government wouldn’t allow another plant, but they even subsidized them and became their ONLY customer. The province has almost NO regulations or enforcement of factory farms, several pig farmers hightailed it back to Germany leaving huge effluent ponds for the province to clean up.

    As for resource extraction, there’s a good argument that, no, they SHOULDN”T be extracted for precisely those reasons. The most successful economies are those which do them in a very limited and responsible way-certainly not the way NB is talking. They aren’t talking about being like Norway and OWNING the resource. Boom and bust economies are what is destroying the planet, so I’d say no, until the argument can be made that this resource is NOT meant to be ‘boom or bust’, it should be avoided. Again, it made GOOD sense about five years ago, when they were arguing about whether to refurbish Point Lepreau. The public intervenor made the suggestion of building a natural gas terminal, converting Dalhousie to natural gas, and using that to develop a gas market in the province. As I’ve said before, out west the public utilities run the gas markets. In NB they are mainly designed to benefit Irvings and Enbridge. Gas is dirt cheap all over North America-EXCEPT in NB. Back THEN it made some sense. Now it makes less sense, gas is dirt cheap and even the companies that extract it aren’t really interested.

    That said, I did think it was a little bizarre. Worrying about sexually transmitted diseases from workers? I don’t remember that mentioned when the call centre industry was being planned, and let me tell you, I’ve heard some pretty creepy stories from THAT industry.

  13. “The most successful economies are those which do them in a very limited and responsible way-certainly not the way NB is talking.”

    I hope that you are not trying to suggest that Norway is extracting its oil resource in ‘a very limited way’. That would not be correct. They are using the proceeds from the extraction much more wisely than North Americans, but the extraction of oil is proceeding at much the same rate. You are confusing two different issues.

    The point is that Cleary was bemoaning adverse boomtown impacts in shale gas extraction, but has never complained about adverse boomtown impacts for other resources. The fact is that cyclical levels of activity are common in resource extraction (especially when the products of the extraction must be exported and your economy is resource-dependent), whether the resource is renewable or not.

  14. @Jason
    Certainly Dr. Cleary’s reference to Fort Nelson in her report would quality as a Canadian example. From an economics perspective, perhaps the prospect of natural gas from shale in New Brunswick is exciting to some. We could (potentially) move away from our reliance on equalization payments. That being said, this looks less likely when Natural Gas is trading at $3.52. However, as Dr. Cleary’s report pointed out, there is more to this issue than dollars in our pockets.
    Rate, density, cumulative impacts, any sort of development plan–what response do we have to these questions? None! Who knows how many well pads this will take? How closely spaced will they be? Will they be within city limits? Within a city’s watershed? How long will this boom last? With so many unanswered questions, I don’t understand why so many people are so gung-ho to go ahead with development.

  15. @mikel
    I know you are joking right? Where are your facts and sources to back up those aligations of Canada’s record being worse than the US?

  16. The Chief Medical Officer is and idiot. Enough said about her. There is nothing this dying, poverty ridden province needs more than a good economic boom. Our poverty and lack of a sustainable economy are going to have more long-term social, heath and environmental impacts to people than a bit of growth from natural gas. What happen when can afford to treat our water, design proper sewage systems, design proper landfill disposal systems, provide heath care, education …build schools, maintain and fix our crumbling infrastructure. Hec we can’t even cleanup the 1000s of contaminated sites we have now…how is that good to our health?

  17. Mr. Campbell, We hope you and others will attend Dr. Cleary’s presentation, ‘Public Health & Unconventional Shale Gas Mining in New Brunswick’, on Wednesday November 14, 2012 at 7:00 PM at the Community Peace Centre Forum at 22 Church St. in Moncton.

    This event is open to the general public. We would be pleased to see you and your readers come out to hear her and also take the opportunity to ask her questions concerning shale gas and its potential impacts on community health.

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