Inscrutable Leadership

A central conclusion of the Ivany report was “… that the economic and population challenges we now face in Nova Scotia, and dramatically so in our rural regions, demand new vision, innovative approaches, greater collaboration and a greater willingness to take on the risks associated with economic change and progress.”

Energy Minister Andrew Younger feels that he has been misunderstood. He disagrees with those who believe he is ignoring the recommendations in the Wheeler report on hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Is he providing the kind of leadership recommended by Ivany?

Nova Scotians who think that allowing fracking can be an important boost to rural economies are disappointed by Minister Younger’s announcement that he will legislate a ban on the practice.

His actions will be more warmly received by others, but it is interesting to look at the makeup of this rather diverse group.

There are those, typified by the Divest movement, who oppose any effort to discover and exploit new carbon fuels. They would likewise oppose offshore exploration or opening the Donkin mine.

There are others, represented at Wheeler’s meetings and in letters to the editor, who believe that government cannot be trusted to regulate anything properly. This is the route to an economic dead end.

Members of a third group have a more narrow focus on the practice of fracking, and feel certain that it can never be done safely.

These three groups were robustly represented in the 238 submissions to Wheeler’s panel. Analyzing them was the job of panelist Ian Mauro who was unsurprised by the proposed ban.

Younger’s other actions do not appear to align with any of these opponents. He advises that the department is busy drafting regulations for all forms of hydrocarbon extraction, including fracking.  Furthermore the government has pledged to develop a land-based version of the extremely successful Play Fairway analysis that led to the major offshore spending commitments by Shell and BP.

As noted by Younger there remains an important fourth group who say that they are not yet comfortable with the risks of fracking but are willing to listen for more evidence that it can be done safely, and that government can regulate it properly. As such they will be puzzled by the legislative ban, and less inclined to expend energy trying to better understand the issue.

So Younger’s legislative ban is pleasing to three groups with which he apparently disagrees, confusing to the group who are not yet ready but willing to be persuaded, and disappointing to the group supportive of fracking.

The Wheeler report emphasized that “we are not proposing a moratorium” and that each of the risks associated with fracking can be managed with proper regulation. Younger nevertheless insists that the legislative ban is following the Wheeler recommendations.

He frequently makes observations that downplay the potential royalties and employment benefits.He is right to say that any fracking activity will not solve our budget problems this year or next, but if fracking is allowed those benefits could arrive well before any offshore oil or gas, and will provide more jobs for rural Nova Scotians. Shell has said that if typically takes ten years from any discovery in the offshore to first production.

In total both industry and Nova Scotians have legitimate reason to be confused about the minister’s long term plan, or even his own beliefs. Perhaps that is the way he wants it.

Is that the way forward? Should Nova Scotians feel he is providing “new vision, innovative approaches, greater collaboration and a greater willingness to take on the risks?”

Correction:A column two weeks ago said that water from the Donkin mine was pumped untreated from settlement ponds into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This was incorrect. In fact there are number of treatments and tests applied to make sure the water is safe. Apologies.

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