“Safe” is more than a feeling…

(written by Charles Doucet)

Imagine this scene, if you will:

A hospital ICU; the patient is on life support. Standing beside the bed, we have the hospital administrator – let’s call him David. At his side is a rep from a big pharmaceutical company, and relegated to the corner of the room, is the doctor.

The administrator is explaining to the patient that the only thing that will cure their ailment is a new medication that’s just entered the market – let’s call it… Frackacin.

“It’s safe” Dave says, “…and it’s been used in different places for years without any problems” he adds. “Not only that, but the company that makes it follows really tight rules, the toughest around, so you can be sure it’s ok to take the medication”. The pharmaceutical rep is nodding at everything administrator Dave is saying, while, it must be noted, the doctor behind the scenes is clutching her clipboard in a white-knuckled grip and is working hard to bite her tongue.

“Are there any other options?” the sick patient asks. The doctor then chimes in quietly: “well, with some minor lifestyle changes, and a little exercise…”

“No, no”, Dave interrupts, “Frackacin is the only thing that’ll work”.

“But, I’d like to try those things the doctor mentioned…” the patient responds.

With furrowed brow, David explains: “I’m afraid you’re misunderstanding me. We not asking for your permission, we’re simply ‘consulting’ with you on what’s going to happen. Hospital policy stipulates that because you chose to come here, you are giving up your right to have a say in how you’re cared for.”

“But, but, what about side effects – are there any?” asks the patient, who’s becoming increasingly concerned.

The pharma rep, not willing to look the patient in the eye, replies sheepishly “well, there have been a few cases of… (mumble, mumble)”.

“What was that? What did you say?” the patient asks shrilly.

“Extra limbs, ok? A few people have grown extra limbs!” Mr. Pharma replies defensively.

“How many had that happen? Are there any other side effects?” the patient demands, now clearly agitated.

“Well, the thing is, we don’t really have an answer to either of those questions” Mr. Pharma admits, embarrassed. Dave speaks up: “None of this matters, as I’ve said… Frackacin is the only cure, I’ll stake my career on it. Now take your medicine!”

“The Hell I will”, the patient exclaims angrily, tearing off leads, throwing off the sheets of the bed and storming from the room.


The moral of this cheeky little story is this: “Safe” is more than a feeling. It’s also more than the opinion of a clearly biased person or organization with a vested interest. It is an objective threshold, below which a process or product is “unsafe” and above which the opposite holds true.That threshold is determined by a combination of empirical research and public consultation.

The research is conducted to:

  1. Identify the risks associated with the activity
  2. Quantify those risks.

If we are to avoid a situation like the one outlined in the ‘hospital’ described above, the risk and their determined frequencies must then be brought to all the stakeholders potentially affected in order to discuss what is acceptable to a majority of those people (say an incident frequency of 1 in 500, or 1 in 1,000 for example), then get their yea or nay. In medicine, this concept is known as seeking “informed consent”. In the oil and gas industry, it is called “securing a social license to operate”. Without it, the doctor cannot administer the medicine. The same standard should apply to shale gas if we are to respect people’s rights in democracies.

Dr. Louis Lapierre, in his report “The Path Forward” concluded that the risks associated with the industry must be both identified and quantified. Where he makes a mistake is that he believes it’s both acceptable and necessary to ‘test’ shale gas in New Brunswick, in essence using us as lab rats – without our consent. He is completely mistaken. With a new drug, a sufficiently large sample size of subjects who voluntarily accept to take the medicine should account for any differences arising from gender, age, ethnicity, geography, etc. It can be secured from elsewhere and allow us to draw the necessary conclusions about its safety.

The same can be said for shale gas. So get to work.