Another day, another new forestry policy for New Brunswick

Two years ago (2012), the government of New Brunswick released a new forestry management policy for Crown land.

The 2012 plan was a compromise between those asking for more conservation / different management approaches and those who wanted more access to wood on Crown land. The annual allowable cut for softwood in the 2012 plan was left unchanged from the previous 2007-2012 strategy, and remained at 3.27 million cubic metres. The hardwood allowable cut, on the other hand, was reduced from 1.77 to 1.41 million cubic metres. The conservation forest area was reduced from 30 to 28 percent and the amount of protected natural area (the PNAs are ‘no-cut’ areas within the conservation forest) increased to eight percent.

The plan was based in part on the report of a taskforce established to review forestry practices on Crown land. The report suggested that private woodlots could supply any shortfall in hardwood supplies and also provide any increased demand for softwood supply. The report also suggested that the term ‘working forest’ be used to describe the allocated areas within crown lands, in order to emphasize the renewable aspect of this resource.

[This task force report contains links to many previous forestry reports and so is a valuable resource. I suggest downloading a copy of it and other reports before they are ‘disappeared’.]

The 2012 plan followed years of significant downsizing in the forest industry. A number of lumber mills closed and two pulp mills (Dalhousie and Miramichi) were shut down between 2005 and 2008. The main user of wood supplied from crown lands, J.D. Irving Ltd (JDI), expressed dismay at the new plan. JDI had recently closed the Deersdale and Clair mills; some 143 jobs were lost as a result. A combination of soft market conditions, power rates, and uncertainty re wood supply were cited as reasons for the closures. With the release of the 2012 crown land forestry plan, JDI said that ‘cost uncertainty’ relating to that new forestry plan would keep those mills closed.

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What the peer-reviewed science says about shale gas

Shale gas exploration and extraction via hydraulic fracturing is a controversial and polarizing topic in New Brunswick. The public is divided on the issue and, as is often the case these days, social media are being used to rally supporters to one side or the other. Inflammatory rhetoric and exaggerated claims appear to dominate the discussion. That being said, it is far from clear yet whether NB has a sufficiently large and economically extractable reserve of gas to create a significant industry; it may turn out that shale gas may not exist in sufficient quantities,  or prices may not be sufficient to justify development at this time.  On the other hand, the gas is a public asset and so discussion of how to develop (or not develop) and utilize the asset is merited. For a useful outline of the shale industry in New Brunswick, see an article by A. Park of UNB (16) and an opinion piece by various UNB researchers.

The development of hydraulic fracturing technologies over the past 30 years or so has made extraction of shale gas economically feasible and attractive prices have allowed the industry to expand rapidly. An abundance of gas in the marketplace pushed down prices in 2011-2012 and the expansion of the industry has slowed somewhat. Information in the peer-reviewed scientific literature with respect to adverse environmental and health impacts from shale gas extraction is now beginning to appear. A number of these articles are available for free download and I would encourage people to read them, rather than accept the interpretations that appear in various media (or my interpretations, for that matter). It is fine to have opinions, but much better to have opinions based in verifiable data. Then we can have a rational discussion.
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Rhetoric, reality and shale gas

There is a heated debate going on in New Brunswick over shale gas. Some want to proceed with exploration and extraction; some do not. Others are on the fence. What are the various political parties saying?

The Progressive Conservatives (now in power and desperate for some good economic news) want to push the industry forward. They have done a miserable job of handling the economic file and badly need a ‘success’ before the next election, which will be held in September 2014.

The Liberal Party wants a moratorium on exploration. A moratorium, by definition, is a suspension of an activity until certain conditions are met. In this case, the conditions might be related to environmental concerns being satisfied, although the Liberals have not been exactly clear on this. The more vague you are about the conditions, the easier it will be for you to say at a later date that the conditions have been met.

The New Democratic Party position is similar to that of the Liberals, although they want what amounts to a legislative moratorium. In other words, they want a moratorium put in place via a vote in the Legislature such that the moratorium could only be removed via another vote. The NDP use a clever trick of saying that they want a ‘ban’ on the industry. However, they imply that the moratorium would be supported by them only until a cost/benefit analysis shows that shale gas development has a net benefit to the province. In other words, they also support shale gas exploitation in principle, but demand that certain conditions be met.

Those opposed to shale gas development don’t appear to be interested in cost/benefit analyses or assurances of safety. They simply do not want the development to go forward. If that is an important enough issue to them, then logically they would vote for the Green Party, as that is the only Party that rejects shale gas outright.

The winner of the next provincial election will almost certainly be either the PCs or the Liberals. Perhaps the NDP will pick up a few seats and hold the balance of power. Given the province’s current economic condition, it is clear to me that whoever wins (or whoever holds the balance of power in a minority government) will eventually allow shale gas exploitation to proceed. It is a matter therefore of how much oversight, monitoring and regulation is put in place before the development proceeds.

Given the above, it might be worthwhile if the media spent less time inquiring whether politicians ‘support’ gas extraction or not and more time discussing how the gas should be used. After all, the gas is a public asset, and we should not just be discussing whether or not it should be exploited, but (if we do exploit it) how it should be used. Should we allow the industry to just release the gas into pipelines delivering the gas elsewhere or should we do what is necessary to encourage use of the gas here in NB. Supplying low cost gas to NB industry and residents might have some long-term economic advantages.

 

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Text of the Penobsquis report and comments

Recently, the Mining Commissioner of the Province of New Brunswick released his report on the complaint by residents of the Penobsquis area regarding damage to their property they claimed was the result of mining activities by the Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan.

As is detailed below, the Commissioner’s report deals mainly with a land subsidence claim put forward by some residents. Water damage claims were withdrawn – some reasons for that withdrawal are given here. The whole story is quite an indictment of the Province’s apparent complete lack of regard for the concerns of its citizens. In short, the Province has failed to show that it ‘has the people’s back’. That, in fact, is the most alarming aspect of this decades-old story. I am not in a position to evaluate the damage claims made by Penobsquis residents, but the’ hands-off’, ‘let the lawyers decide’ attitude of successive Provincial governments is chilling.

The text of the Commissioner’s report is below. This text was formatted for this website from a PDF version of the report. Some errors may have been introduced during this formatting – for those, I apologize (please send me an email if you find errors that mislead).

I am not a mining expert and cannot comment on the technical issues here. But I will make the following comments:

1. The Mining Commissioner appears to be a lawyer and there is no evidence that he has sufficient technical backgound to judge the merits of the evidence before him. Given the powers of the Commissioner, it seems to me that it would be preferable (and more fair) if the Commissioner had considerable technical backgound in the issues at hand, but had access to legal advice where needed. Here we have the opposite – in fact, it is worse than the opposite as there is no evidence that the Commissioner had access to any independent technical advice.

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