Stopping Hydraulic Fracturing
Posted September 5, 2014
The Wheeler report on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is emphatic that “we are not proposing a moratorium”. But neither does it say full speed ahead. In the process it left the government with a wide range of options on how to proceed. Energy Minister Younger’s response is to introduce legislation banning fracking. It tells a lot about government’s commitment to improving our economy. Estimates of the size of resource and consequent economic impact are highly speculative, but the payoff in royalties alone is many billions of dollars, even in the report’s “low-medium” scenario.
The report identifies and evaluates the various hazards (pp 319-324) and concludes that each of them is either low risk to the community in which it operates or that the risks can be managed with proper regulation.
That is far from saying that Nova Scotians should have confidence that the risks will be managed properly. Recent experiences with the Northern Pulp mill and elsewhere have provided ample room for skepticism. In Kennetcook the waste water from Nova Scotia’s first fracking experience many years ago still awaits disposal. For that government is at least as much to blame as the operator.
Some of the community issues are socio-economic, such as pressure from the new jobs and industrial activity on housing supply, labour availability, and transportation infrastructure. These are little different from what would happen if a new Michelin plant was to open in, say, Springhill.
One suspects that most people in Cumberland County would not mind being afflicted by a strong dose of prosperity in their community. For some towns it could mean avoiding a relentless decline—loss of schools, health care facilities, and commercial establishments.
The most substantive issues considered are the use of water resources, and the safe management and subsequent disposal of fracking fluids. These include chemicals that aid the fracturing process. When fluids return to the surface they also bring back naturally occurring substances that can be hazardous.
Accidents do happen, infrequently, within or at the top of the wellbore, or in the subsequent fracking fluid disposal process. Here is where effective regulation is the most important. Careful monitoring and prompt response can greatly reduce the environmental impact of such incidents.
It is interesting to observe a parallel situation emerging in Cape Breton. The prospect of a new owner has reignited hopes for the Donkin coal mine in Cape Breton, which would provide 200 or more badly needed jobs in Glace Bay.
Coal is dirtier than natural gas, producing twice as much in greenhouse gases as well as other nasty substances when burned. Coal mining is more dangerous for its workers than fracking.
The Donkin mine needs to be drained of huge quantities of water which, after a period in a settlement pond and treatment, is pumped into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Pumps are also used to extract and ventilate methane.
Nevertheless the project has environmental approvals from both provincial and federal governments and the project is generally supported in the community. Minister Younger reiterated his support for Donkin when announcing the ban on fracking.
The difference is that the coal industry and its risks are familiar to Nova Scotians. Familiarity is likewise why western Canadians are comfortable with fracking, with which they have accumulated considerable experience in the last couple of decades.
Their provincial governments have also established credibility for their ability and willingness to regulate effectively. That trust is frequently lacking in Nova Scotia.
The Wheeler panel makes it clear, as does the experience in western Canada, that the risks to communities are manageable. But Nova Scotia lacks substantial experience with fracking and has a poor government track record in regulatory management. Communities are therefore hesitant to grant the kind of social license that is granted to the Donkin coal mine.
It would be wrong for government to allow fracking today, because of that lack of community support. A way forward might have involved a pilot study for one or two open-minded communities to better understand and influence how a project might unfold in their area. (Safe disposal of the leftover Kennetcook fracking fluids would be a good preamble.) The program could include visits to comparable towns in Alberta or Saskatchewan to learn from their experience. A proposal to allow fracking would only come forward if supported in the pilot communities.
The minister acknowledges that the risks are manageable and the potential return substantial, but says that Nova Scotians are not ready to support fracking. He is not interested in trying to earn that support. In fact he seems only interested in polls. Will the much needed Donkin mine be put at risk by some future polling results?
Wheeler’s report urged further study and community involvement. Younger’s response points in exactly the opposite direction. He proposes no actions to advance understanding, claiming that staff are busy on other files.
He plans to enshrine today’s polling numbers in legislation. The issue needs engagement, energy, and thoughtful political leadership. Instead the minister is just burying it.
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