LaPierre 'Satisfied' with Shale Gas Rules2/26/2013
The man who has been at the forefront of shale gas discussion in New Brunswick said after reviewing the regulations, he’s now convinced that the provincial government has taken the necessary precautions to safely regulate the contentious yet potentially profitable industry.
“I think the government has done a great job in putting forward a process that should allow us to develop an industry in New Brunswick, provided we can quantify that we have enough gas to develop the industry,” said Dr. Louis LaPierre, a biology professor emeritus at the Université de Moncton, who is also the recently named chairman of the Energy Institute.
“I think this provides a great start. There are things that need to be tweaked, but I think for the majority of citizens this should offer a security that the process is going to be conducted within the best technologies, the latest information and that it will be monitored by a third party.”
LaPierre has 35 years of experience in environmental assessment and preservation at the local, provincial and national levels. In May 2012, the retired professor was asked by the provincial government to travel around the province gathering public reaction to 116 proposals the David Alward government had floated for regulating the shale gas industry should it progress beyond its infancy in the province.
The results of the roughly 200 submissions LaPierre heard and his attempts to synthesize the information and make recommendations to government on what to do with the public feedback are contained in a 40-page report called The Path Forward, released last year.
As a result of the feedback, those 116 proposals were then compressed into 97 new rules earlier this month to police the oil and gas industry — spelling out in extensive detail how, when and where shale gas exploration and development can take place in New Brunswick.
In an exclusive interview with the Times and Transcript, LaPierre discussed his thoughts on the provincial regulations, where he thinks improvements could still be made and how he thinks the guidelines are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how shale gas development will proceed in the province.
“I’m fairly satisfied with the recommendations. I think they are going in the right direction. They certainly spell out some clear directives on issues that were contentious,” LaPierre said.
LaPierre noted that one of the most important things when extracting gas from shale is the integrity of the well, and he believes the province has thoroughly addressed this.
“The government has decided that all the joints will be treaded sleeves. Pipes will all be treaded, and this makes a much stronger joint. And plus there will be two pipes, so you’ll have a double-wall pipe, and these will be treaded, so that’s a very important component of it because it adds an important issue to the safety of the well,” he said.
LaPierre was also pleased with the detail the government went into detailing the cementing process.
“It’s a very important process. It’s one that could be easily (manipulated) if one was to cut corners … but the government has specified that these are an important component and need to be put into the proper perspective.”
LaPierre said in hearing feedback from around the province, one of the things that came up repeatedly was that the public didn’t trust the industry to self-regulate on these issues, a point that becomes moot due to the requirement for third-party regulators to be involved in determining if a water supply has been compromised and working through the dispute resolution process.
“To me that was an important one because a lot of the people would say you really can’t trust the companies to do it because how are we going to be assured that they are doing their job?” LaPierre said.
The regulations also have a requirement for double well casings in all exploratory wells to ensure groundwater protection, which LaPierre said should ease a lot of environmental concerns.
“A lot of people are using open pits, and it was subject to much criticism. People who criticize the industry will often relate back to the incidents associated with these open pits and surface contamination. But if we in New Brunswick have a closed container, then you won’t have to address those issuesand#8201;…and#8201;because the will be pumped directly to these tanks and it’s a much securer system,” he said. “So I think government has done a great job in addressing this issue because it’s a contentious issue.”
LaPierre also pointed out that as well as the scientific, there are social aspects of the industry that he feels are well covered in the regulations.
“If anything happens, the government is going to put in place an independent assessment, and if there’s harm or damage that has been done to an individual’s life, their earning of their livelihood or a destruction of their land base, they will get compensated immediately, and then government will decide who is at fault and who will ultimately pay,” he said.
LaPierre also pointed out that every community where there is shale gas activity will be responsible to put in place a community liaison group that will work with the industry, which he thinks will be great for making information available to the public.
Of course, LaPierre doesn’t believe the regulations are a perfect document. He noted that the government has touched on the major components of drilling and extracting the gas, but there would be other things to think of should the industry move forward in New Brunswick, such as alternative ways to transport materials that do not involve roads.
Despite his vote of confidence, LaPierre knows that no matter what information is put forward, some people will still be against having the shale gas industry in New Brunswick. However, he hopes the strict regulations will help convince those who are on the fence.
“I think having those components in place, using the best of science, best of knowledge, collecting the data, requiring data be collected, requiring that there be third-party monitors, I think it offers the best security that can be offered at this time to start the industry, and it should I think appease a lot of people’s minds,” he said. “I think if they look at the industry that is being proposed and we look at the other industrial development we have in the province, I think this industry can be very well integrated into the overall industrial development of the province.”
While he may end up being seen as the face or figurehead of shale gas development in New Brunswick — for better or for worse — LaPierre isn’t concerned about whether the industry’s success will impact the reputation he leaves behind.
“I have no idea what history will look on me as and really it isn’t my concern. My concern is that I think we have to look at New Brunswick today and asses the resources we have. We do need to develop the province,” he said. “The world is changing, and I think New Brunswick as a province has to change also. If you look at the global situation, there’s no question that as we globalize and as we change, we still are going to have a need for energy. I totally agree we need to look at reducing our carbon footprint. It would be great if we could lose our shoes and have no footprint at all. For the immediate future I do not see how we can move away from that carbon footprint and say ‘Tomorrow, there will be no more carbon.’ That is a goal that as a society we should move towards, but in the meantime we still have to move on as an industry.”
LaPierre also noted that critics often cite inaccurate or outdated information about shale gas development because the knowledge base and expertise has grown substantially as the science has evolved. However, as with any industry, he said there have been growing pains as new knowledge is acquired and that New Brunswick doesn’t have to start at square one in terms of the process.
“We know what the industry is doing, all of this has taken a leap forward in the last three to five years,” he said. “I think we want to be the best there is if we are going to develop a gas industry. If we want to do it, it has to be economically viable before we start and it has to be environmentally safe and it’s got to make sure of the health, that we do not harm the health of our citizens by extracting it.”
Of course, no matter how many rules, regulations and guidelines are put in place, LaPierre is a realist and recognizes that “there’s always a possibility that things might go wrong.” But the retired professor is hoping New Brunswick will be prepared to deal with potential problems.
“From looking at the results of where this is being used, the results are fairly good. You’ve got much fewer leaks than you had 15 years ago,” he said. “Companies and governments are always looking at ensuring that leaks do not occur because no one wants to drill for gas and lose it through leaks. We help to ensure that if there was a leak that we do not contaminate the groundwater. That’s got to be a given; there’s no question about it.”
So how quickly could shale gas development continue ahead full force in New Brunswick? LaPierre said the first thing needed is the determination that there is enough gas available that warrants going ahead with the industry, which he thinks should be done within a year or two.
“Then what I suggest in my report was that we should go slowly and look at if we can put in place one or two additional fields from the ones we have now, test the rules and regulations, ensure that we understand that we can do it safely, address the issues if we have some. Then it will be up to the people that take the decisions to see if we go ahead and how fast we explore.”