Fracking Deserves An Informed Debate
Posted July 31, 2014
The review of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) by David Wheeler, President of Cape Breton University, is a model of transparency and accessibility. It is intended to be a dispassionate assessment of the relevant facts. It is not a political process but sets the stage for political choices to be made in a well-informed context.The review began by inviting general public to provide initial thoughts, as well as recommendations for panelists. Not everyone seemed to understand that an idea’s value is not enhanced by repetition—the Council of Canadians sent in the same text 507 times.
Dr. Wheeler assembled a panel of distinguished academics each of whom agreed to serve for a small honorarium, all within a modest budget of $100,000. The available literature was diligently consulted and the evolution of regulatory practices considered.
The panel has produced exposure drafts for its proposed ten chapters. For each one an opportunity has been provided for public input. In addition an online forum was established to discuss three of the topics (resource potential, energy well integrity, impact on public health).
Finally, a series of eleven public meetings were held across the province, mostly in counties likely to be candidates for exploration. At each a slide presentation was provided, highlighting the panel’s findings to date. The final report will be produced in August.
The panel’s measured and thoughtful approach was not always reciprocated at the public meetings. Many of those who attended viewed it as an opportunity to ventilate their opposition rather than to learn from the panel’s work. In fact Wheeler was often unable to finish presenting his slides. Some of the comments were abusive and uncalled for—one dismissed the whole process as “a sham” and a “faux consultation.” Others suggested that the panel was in the pocket of industry.
This is disgraceful. Many of those people are the same ones clamouring for public participation and dialogue. Wheeler’s panel has provided many opportunities for input and produced a valuable contribution to understanding of the topic. Yet many opponents want to discredit it before it is even finalized. This is not to say that all opponents acted rudely, or that there are no real issues. Chief among those are energy well integrity, disposal of fracking fluids when they come back above ground, respect for aboriginal rights, and community acceptance.
Problems have occurred when well bores were not properly sealed, resulting in leakages into aquifers and the atmosphere. Care and regulatory oversight are needed in managing and disposing of used fracking fluids, to which potential contaminants may have been added underground. Technology addressing both issues has advanced quite a bit in western Canada, but achieving satisfactory regulation continues to be a matter for serious discussion.
The topic of aboriginal rights is well beyond my ability to explain, even before the recent Supreme Court of Canada decision about land rights in British Columbia. But it is illustrative of the more general issue of community acceptance.
Given the scarce knowledge of resource potential any estimate as to potential benefit to the province is highly speculative. The panel’s guess is in the $5–$25 billion range, just for royalties. Therefore if Nova Scotia has the right geology (by no means a certainty) the resource could be enormously valuable to the funding of quality health, education, and other services.
But it is not enough that the province as a whole benefits. Any immediately affected community needs an extra share of that cash to acknowledge its contribution and to deal with issues like increased truck traffic and other strains on infrastructure.
They must have found a way to deal with that in Western Canada. Each of the four western provinces has embraced fracking. It is also permitted in New Brunswick. Quebec is experimenting with it on lightly populated Anticosti Island. In Alberta’s case more than 175,000 wells have been fracked. If the assertions of some opponents were true Alberta should by now be a rapidly emptying wasteland with barely breathable air and not a drop of potable water to be found. In fact it is the richest and fastest growing province in Canada, followed closely by Saskatchewan and BC. Incomes in low-tax Alberta are almost 40% higher than Nova Scotia. Farmers have not suffered: production of wheat and canola reached record levels last year. We are losing more of our young people to Alberta than anywhere else.
Those three provinces, together with oil-rich Newfoundland and Labrador, are the “have” provinces contributing equalization payments to the rest of Canada. Nova Scotia’s share this year will be $1.75 billion. Without fracking in the western provinces it would be much less.
Wheeler was careful to explain that nothing is going to happen soon. Much more work needs to be done, particularly on environmental regulations and determining aboriginal rights.
Most important will be developing measures that will intensively engage potentially affected communities and make them feel that they are in a win position. It might be worthwhile for a group of community leaders to go out west and see how this can work in practice.
Readers are urged to look at the slides used in Wheeler’s presentation. Better still read the whole report when it comes out in August. Shale gas and oil could be a very important contributor to a prosperous future for Nova Scotia. As the discussion moves forward Nova Scotians should insist on a civilized and well-informed debate.
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