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Government appointed New Brunswick Energy Institute scientists mandated to research fracking

Critics say the institute won’t change government policy or affect enforcement

by Rana Encol

Environmental Science Professor Louis LaPierre, Chair of the New Brunswick Energy Institute.  Photo source: The Path Forward
Environmental Science Professor Louis LaPierre, Chair of the New Brunswick Energy Institute. Photo source: The Path Forward

ELSIPOGTOG, NEW BRUNSWICK - New Brunswick is pressing forward on imminent hydro-fracturing in the province by developing its own research think tank around shale gas exploration, billed as a “science-based” independent body for research and water testing.

Last week, Energy and Mines minister Craig Leonard named the seven research fellows to compose the New Brunswick Energy Institute unveiled by Premier David Alward in January of 2013.  Louis Lapierre, an environmental science professor at the University of  Moncton, is to chair the institute.

At the announcement, Alward had said "Dr. Lapierre is an internationally recognized scientist, and he is the right person to provide leadership on this file while working with communities, experts, and industry."

The Alward government has touted the Institute as “an independent body composed of researchers from New Brunswick universities.”

Seismic testing for shale gas exploration has been occurring outside the shale gas lease areas since the first week of June, 2013, and this announcement is the latest bid to legitimize their operation, say opposition critics and environmental groups.  

New Brunswick NDP party leader Dominic Cardy thinks the institute is a “smoke screen” to allay public concern while exploration continues.

“Laws don’t get enforced anyway, so I don’t think this institute will make any difference,” he said.

“We’ve seen this with economic development, wetlands protection, and now shale gas. This government is not serious when it comes to enforcing law.

“The current government has expressed a political commitment to move forward on this. All the institutes and think tanks won’t change their minds. The chances of (this institute) influencing government are slim. Their mandate is to monitor development of the industry.”

In his October 2012 government report entitled The Path Forward, LaPierre alludes to the opposition to development from affected communities and health care officials in New Brunswick, but maintains that continued and controlled industry exploration would yield more research than a government moratorium.

“A moratorium doesn’t give knowledge,” he told the Media Co-op.  But he also concedes that research could technically continue whether or not there is a moratorium on testing, “because it is independent of SWN (Resources Canada).”

The mayors of Kent County, where indigenous and environmental activists have been clashing with SWN testing crew for weeks, voted 16-1 in favour of a moratorium last Thursday.  The Liberal Party of New Brunswick endorses a moratorium; the provincial NDP wants a “legislative ban” and the Greens call for an outright ban.

Though he identified the need to independently evaluate peer-reviewed research around toxicology and health issues associated with fracking in The Path Forward, LaPierre shifted responsibility in this area to other departments when interviewed.  “The institute itself will not get involved in health issues. That’s up to the ministry…We won’t be touching health.”  

The institute is mandated for hard scientific research only, and it’s up to the public and government on how they will use it, says LaPierre.

New Brunswick legislature has appointed $1 million to the institute in 2013-2014, with more moneys flowing in from government agencies such as the NSERC, NRC, and the Geological Survey of Canada.  In the Path Forward and while speaking with the Media Co-op, LaPierre said that eventual royalties from the shale gas industry would be dedicated to operating expenses such as administration and scientists’ salaries.  

When asked whether or not this constituted a conflict of interest, LaPierre’s response was: “No, there is no conflict with industry.”  He further added that funding from shale gas royalties was only “a possibility.”

Twelve “science fellows” have been appointed to develop the research agenda for the institute. “Because a goal of the institute is to expose New Brunswickers to how scientists work and think, the science fellows will also help the institute develop a comprehensive, science-based information and education program,” says the government press release dated 18 July.

Many of the other scientists at the Institute have a conspicuous background in the shale gas industry.

“Maurice Dusseault, a professor at the University of Waterloo, has extensive experience in resource and shale gas and geo-mechanics, including hydraulic fracturing,” says the release. “He has extensive consulting background relating to drilling; he has authored two textbooks and published 450 articles.”

A biography published online by the Heavy Oil Science Centre traces how Dusseault, a member of several petroleum professional societies, began his career on the ground: “After flunking out of University in 1965, Maurice started in the oil industry as a roughneck for a year, then as a drilling fluids specialist for two years.”  

Activists with Upriver Environmental Watch documented moose and other animal tracks in the wetlands shortly after six shot holes for seismic testing were discovered last week. Questions about the explosive chemical compounds’ effect on wildlife are yet to be answered, but may not even arisen if independent environmental monitoring was on site as promised, they say.  

They’re not sure a panel of experts is needed so much as enforcement of existing regulations.

In LaPierre’s opinion, seismic testing is not considered very invasive and is comparable to testing done for road construction. He says there will be six to eight seismic monitors installed in Albert County this summer; testing of wells will occur next summer.

The institute, he says, will deliver a report on an annual basis.


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