Cornhill, Salisbury, St. Ignace, St. Louis de Kent, Taymouth, Boiestown, Doaktown, Acadieville, Rexton. These are some of the communities in the frontline fight against the shale gas industry in New Brunswick. On Thursday, June 23 from 9 to 4:30 pm at the Fredericton Inn on Regent Street in Fredericton, the provincial government is holding a forum on shale gas, and people from these communities plan to be rallying outside to ensure their voices are heard.
Government officials will discuss the issue of shale gas drilling in the province, with several organizations it invited to speak on behalf of citizens. They include municipalities, industry groups, universities, First Nations and other community groups. The forum is being organized by the Natural Gas Steering Committee headed by the ministers and deputy ministers of Environment, Energy and Natural Resources.
Since the forum won't be open to the individual public, it seems there is no choice for people other than gather outside in protest. And since the reception to government officials in town meetings with these people impacted by shale gas exploration has been hostile and aggressive, it is no wonder this committee is holding meetings behind closed doors.
But both sides are being tone deaf to the needs of the other.
In the absence of any clear mandate on shale gas drilling communicated to the public by the government, a vacuum has been created that is quickly filling up with rumors, misinformation and hysteria. People are scared.
Viewings of the documentary Gasland, with its alarmist tone, has got people up in arms, the agenda of conservation groups has become the vox populi and some of the affected communities are organizing a Neighborhood Watch-like network to monitor what they see as suspicious behaviour by big company interlopers, nosing around their community looking for potential fracking sites that will destroy their water source.
It is no wonder then when people have access to government officials in their midst at town meetings on shale gas, they get quite impatient with the lack of concrete answers. Everyday these people see the encroachment of big industry onto their little villages in the faces of strangers, who quietly show up using bizarre-looking devices or big intimidating thumper trucks, to gather information for fracking that destroys their well water. It's happening so fast and they wonder why government isn't doing more to catch up; to get control of this goliath bearing down on them.
Instead, government allows what many perceive as a slick-talking snake oil salesman with the southern drawl of Big Daddy to go around the province to speak on its behalf, defending the industry with the real facts to people who have a natural suspicion of outsiders. And it wonders why this isn't going down well.
Conversely, the groundswell of protest arising from the populace on the issue of shale gas is loud, obnoxious and bullying. It's obvious why the government wants to prevent a fractious debate at Thursday's forum by keeping the numbers down and having the public represented by groups instead. There is less chance for it to go off the rails into emotional tirades, which has occurred in the town meetings where hapless government officials sat soberly taking the brunt of public anger, being repeatedly questioned by individuals at the mic while the mob derisively mocked their answers. They showed up and took it at least, letting the public know, however futile, that they are indeed working on putting legislation in place to police the industry here.
The Alward government inherited this mess from the previous one flailing around trying to find the quickest way to staunch the flow of red onto the province's balance sheet. Officials need time to get out in front of this and until legislation is in place, there isn't a whole helluva lot they can say on the matter. They can listen and consult and that is what they are trying to do with the public meetings.
This young government also sees the potential of the shale gas industry here, bringing jobs and educational funding to a province sorely lacking in investment from anyone, let alone a billion dollar player in the field, at a time when provincial, national and global coffers are desperate. Who is going to pay for the health services of aging boomers, those very people who are the majority demographic protesting shale gas companies setting up shop here? What is going to finance a provincial bilingual education system? Have any of these protesters thought of solutions for getting the province out of debt instead of shooting down government's attempts to try?
The Purple Violet Press sees both sides of the issue and we daresay it's more than just two sides because it's so complicated. Ways have to be found to maintain the pristine nature of the province's environment, yet avenues of solid investment are needed to pull itself out of debt. Communication is key. Listening is key. Public haranguing doesn't work, nor does silence in an attempt to control the situation or allowing outsiders to educate locals on the 'facts'.
Thursday is a chance for all sides to have input and reasoned debate. The government has got step up and be ready for what is coming at them. The people need to allow them to prepare. If things get out of control, and God forbid they do, someone could get hurt. But worse, an opportunity for everyone to work together to get this province off it's knees, a place it's been for too long, could be lost.