Whether one supports or opposes shale gas extraction and the related practice of hydraulic fracturing, there is no doubt that it is a major issue in New Brunswick. I won’t get into the reasons for this here, as there are already many resources available on this topic. Rather, I will focus on the controversial reaction of Fredericton City Council to the shale gas extraction issue.
Mayor Brad Woodside is on record as saying that shale gas extraction is a non-issue in Fredericton, because Council will never allow it. It follows, then, that no harm would come from passing a binding resolution that states that no shale gas extraction will occur in the City of Fredericton. Council has refused to bring such a resolution to the table, however. Woodside has also stated that extraction outside city limits is a provincial issue (which is true, insofar as the provincial government ultimately decides whether to permit such extraction, and all royalties from natural gas extraction go to provincial coffers1), but it does not follow that municipalities have no say in the matter. Indeed, municipalities have the ability and responsibility to sway decisions of the provincial government through lobbying for the betterment of their constituents.
This was demonstrated in early October 2011, when the Union of Municipalities of New Brunswick voted on a resolution which would have called on the provincial government to institute a moratorium on shale gas exploration and drilling. The resolution narrowly failed, with eighteen municipalities voting in favour and twenty-two voting against. Fredericton City Council voted against the moratorium.
I spoke to a member of Council about this issue, asking him to clarify why Council voted in favour of shale gas extraction even though Mayor Woodside had taken a strong verbal stance against it. He responded that Council is indeed opposed to shale gas extraction within city limits—but that Council is in favour of shale gas extraction in the rural areas around Fredericton and the province as a whole. That rather crucial detail was not disclosed to the general public.
On April 10th, 2012, less than five weeks before election day, Mark D’Arcy was finally allowed to deliver a presentation at a regular meeting of City Council about the hazards of shale gas extraction—approximately nine months after he had first asked to do so. He and his supporters called on Council to do two things:
- Ban shale gas exploration in the Fredericton area; and
- Call on the provincial government to implement either a ban or moratorium on shale gas exploration.
Instead, Council enacted a resolution which only did the following:
- Asserted that shale gas exploration in Fredericton may proceed only with the permission of City Council (this was already the case under provincial law, so this changed nothing); and
- Called on the provincial government to implement environmental safeguards when shale gas extraction occurs—which the provincial government had already pledged to do.
It is plainly obvious that these are not the same resolutions, and that the resolution that was passed provided the illusion of doing something to address the shale gas issue without actually doing anything at all. Here is a recording of the full resolution being passed:
It would be one thing if the City had merely failed to do anything substantial to address a serious issue like shale gas. Much worse than that, however, is the fact that Mayor Brad Woodside lied about City Council’s resolution for political gain. He portrayed this resolution as an outright declaration of “no” to shale gas:
City Council did not say “no” to fracking, exploration, or drilling. Why, then, did he claim that it did?
The reason is quite easy to discern, given the incredibly positive feedback that Mayor Brad Woodside received for the tweet posted above. This was the middle of election season; the resolution was passed on April 10th, and the municipal election, in which Woodside was running, was on May 14th. He had fooled voters into thinking that he and the rest of Council had said “no” to shale gas, which was, and still is, a popular stance in New Brunswick. This was a politician at his most cynical; he was willing to go so far as to lie to his own constituents to garner more votes.
Of course, we may wonder why Council pretended to oppose shale gas extraction, instead of actually doing so. The most likely reason is that most of the business community—which has tremendous influence over our political system—was in favour of shale gas extraction. The Fredericton Chamber of Commerce officially endorsed shale gas extraction just over two weeks before this resolution was passed. As it happens, it also implored City Council to make cutbacks to its municipal pension plan, and Council obediently adopted that suggestion as well. In fact, I don’t recall City Council ever doing something contrary to what the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce requested. If you can think of any such instances, please let me know.
Ultimately, if Woodside and City Council had taken a genuinely strong stance against shale gas extraction, it would have put them at odds with the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce, which represents virtually every wealthy business interest in the city. If they had taken an overt stance in favour of shale gas extraction, it would have put them at odds with the majority of voters during election season. Their “solution” was to play both sides. They tried to fool voters into thinking that they had taken a genuinely strong stance against shale gas, when they have in fact supported shale gas extraction at every turn.
The applause at the April 10th meeting effectively summed up the general feeling about shale gas in this community. The applause following Mark D’Arcy’s presentation about the hazards of shale gas was long and raucous. The applause following Council’s toothless resolution was half-hearted, awkward, and short. The people have spoken; they do not want shale gas exploration, and they want a mayor who misrepresents the nature of Council resolutions even less.
Our councillors and mayor have some serious questions to answer: Why have they not joined with other municipalities in opposing shale gas extraction? Why was there no public debate on this issue? Why have the calls from constituents to do something meaningful about shale gas ultimately gone unanswered? Most importantly, why do they claim to have said “no to fracking” when they clearly did no such thing, and expect us not to notice?