On Sunday, environmental groups sent letters to every New Brunswick MLA urging them to speak out against recent rumblings of shale gas expansion in Eastern Canada.

In March, Premier Blaine Higgs sent First Nations in the province letters encouraging their support for development of a shale gas reserve near Sussex, saying they could see significant profits come their way if the plan moves forward. It followed Higgs’ throne speech last October, where he broached the subject. Some First Nations spoke out, saying the province didn’t consult them before the speech and that they have opposed the shale gas industry for over a decade.

Shale gas is a natural gas made mostly of methane that is stored underground and extracted through fracking, a drilling method that injects water, chemicals and sand at extremely high pressures. The process has been found to leak methane — shale gas extraction in the United States was partly to blame for a global spike in methane emissions, according to 2019 research from Cornell University. There is also evidence fracking contaminates groundwater and that the chemicals used in the process cause health problems in nearby communities.

In April 2021, Higgs announced he was pulling out of gas revenue tax-sharing agreements with 13 Mi'kmaq and Wolastoqey First Nations. The agreement meant First Nations kept the majority of on-reserve gas tax revenue, an important source of income. Pabineau First Nation Chief Terry Richardson said the pullout, followed by the request for Indigenous buy-in for shale gas expansion, feels like “blackmail” and stresses he does not support any development of the fossil fuel.

“We're talking about our water systems. Many First Nation communities are on well water. Many rural communities in New Brunswick are on well water. So, you know, if we're going to put that at risk, that's a huge gamble to take,” he said.

Higgs’ office did not return a request for comment. Canada’s National Observer also reached out to the New Brunswick Liberal Association but did not receive a response by deadline. On Tuesday, Green Party leader David Coon spoke out against shale gas expansion at the Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick, which he said Higgs is "off promoting in Europe this week."

"My colleagues and I agree with this statement, and we ask that all members of the House join us in providing hope for the youth of our province by acting decisively to permanently close the door on fracking in New Brunswick," he said.

In 2014, a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing — also known as fracking — was put in place following months of anti-shale gas protests. According to the provincial government, the moratorium will not be lifted until “a social licence [is] in place” and “a process [is] in place to respect our obligations under the duty to consult with First Nations,” among other requirements.

A shale gas rig in B.C. Photo by Green Energy Futures via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The groups that sent the letters — which include the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, the Sierra Club Atlantic Region and the New Brunswick Anti-Shale Gas Alliance, among others — wrote to every MLA in the province urging them to “enact measures to remove shale gas from the public and political debate on climate and energy, as it cannot be a part of the solutions to those issues.”

Shale gas is a natural gas made mostly of methane that is stored underground and extracted through fracking, a drilling method which injects water, chemical and sand at extremely high pressures.

The letter was endorsed by 47 groups across Canada, such as the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and CUPE NB.

“The fact that it was easy to get so many provincial groups to endorse the statement shows that there is little to no social acceptance of fracking,” said Jim Emberger, spokesperson for the New Brunswick Anti-Shale Gas Alliance.

“It is time for the government to admit that the health and environmental conditions for lifting the moratorium cannot be met, and these underpin the concept of social acceptance in both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.”

While Higgs has said shale gas, which is a planet-warming fossil fuel, could be used to help transition the province off coal, Richardson argues there are much better alternatives. As of 2019, around 15 per cent of the province’s power generation came from coal.

“I think there's a lot of greener energy opportunities out there, with wind, solar, hydrogen coming onto the market now. Those are the things you should probably be pursuing, not something that is not environmentally friendly to start with and is probably going to become ...obsolete eventually,” he said.

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
May 9, 2023, 02:30 am

This article has been updated to include comment from David Coon, leader of the Green Party in New Brunswick.

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Obviously proponents are choosing to overlook climate change. In fact, it's blatant ignorance, to the point where one should sift through the government's donor list for the key to this policy fiasco in the making. What proponents are also overlooking -- or have failed to discover / acknowledge in the practice of due diligence -- is that shale has some serious limitations above and beyond its toxic ecological footprint. That would be the constraints of the tight rock strata itself.

Geoscientist David Hughes wrote many reports on shale using industry data and found it troubling. Two years back three of the five US shale plays had peaked and were on a plateau with a steep decline just ahead. The majority of drill sites saw an average of 53% decline after only one year. Some were 90+%. It's not an infinite resource and you don't have to be a radical enviro to see the cold economic math.

Most US drillers were also deep in debt. In fact, the hype put out by investment bankers was a magnificent demonstration of magical thinking cast as research. But in the end, drillers needed to drill more holes faster and faster with multiple-directional holes extending horizontally from each rig just get a steady flow of gas and oil to meet the debt payments. Industry critics call a Red Queen.

NB is on a slippery slope with shale and one can legitimately question their so-called business case in the absence of known decline rate precedents and today's market preferences for renewables. No doubt the government is lining up truckloads of subsidy money for donors, money that would better benefit the citizens if redirected to supplying better grants for heat pumps and renewables that take advantage of the Maritime's enormous potential for infinite wind power.