Premature action on fracking

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Appeared in the Summerside Journal-Pioneer and Miramichi Leader

Nova Scotia’s government recently announced it would table legislation to establish a moratorium on the practice of hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) for the production of natural gas in the province. The ban, which follows a lengthy report on the safety of hydraulic fracturing, is indefinite, but not permanent. (One is reminded of the saying that there is nothing more permanent than a temporary tax.)

Nova Scotia’s Energy Minister Andrew Younger suggests Nova Scotia’s gas resources (and investor interest) are limited, concluding there’s little downside to the ban. Others disagree with the minister’s estimate of potential frackable fuels in Nova Scotia. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that Nova Scotia has “In place” reserves of shale gas amounting to some 17 trillion cubic feet, with 3.4 trillion currently defined as recoverable. That’s not going to blow Alberta or BC’s reserves out of the water, but it’s nothing to sneeze at either.

What’s more interesting, about the ban, is how little support it has even from two highly precautionary groups that have reviewed the safety of hydraulic fracturing in Canada. Most proximal to the ban would be the report by the Nova Scotia Independent Panel on Hydraulic Fracturing which observes (p. 308, emphasis mine):

Consistent with the analyses of the report of the Chief Medical Officer of New Brunswick (Cleary, 2012), a review by Public Health England (Kibble et al., 2014), a report by the European Parliament (2011) and the Report of the Council of Canadian Academies (2014), we noted that a number of the potential long-term and cumulative public health impacts of hydraulic fracturing and its associated activities and technologies are simply unknown at the present time. However, there is currently no evidence of catastrophic threats to public health in the short-to-medium term that would necessitate the banning of hydraulic fracturing outright.

The report by the Canadian Council of Academies referenced in the Nova Scotia report also took a comprehensive look at the risks of fracking, and although the report was not supposed to include actual policy recommendations, this paragraph from its conclusions certainly suggests “proceed with caution” rather than “do not proceed (p 219):”

There can be advantages in the “go slow” approaches taken in the eastern provinces of Canada and in Europe (e.g. Germany) allowing additional data collection and integration of multidisciplinary expertise. There are similar advantages in identifying areas that are too environmentally vulnerable to develop. Given the magnitude of the research needs, strong collaborations involving industry, government, and academia will be necessary. However achieving public trust in the results will require a high degree of independency of the researchers, transparency, and effective communications.

More crucially, the Council points out, adaptive learning, which requires progress, is better than a prescriptive moratorium:

It is evident that more science is needed on which to base regulations, and that such regulations will only be effective if they are informed by timely monitoring and enforced rigorously. Given the current knowledge gaps, a science-based, adaptive, and outcomes-based regulatory approach is more likely to be effective than a prescriptive approach, and is more likely to result in an increase in public trust. The principles of such an approach are well-known and can be found in many existing management systems.

It’s hard to see how one engages in strong collaborations between industry, government, and academia when one has banned an activity. Further, it’s hard to see how one engages in a “science-based, adaptive and outcomes-based regulatory approach” when one starts from a position of “No.”

No reasonable person would dismiss the risks of hydraulic fracturing for gas and oil out of hand. The processes certainly have the potential to cause a variety of environmental ills if done improperly. However, no rational person would fail to understand that Canada’s economic wellbeing is tied to the production of fossil fuels, particularly clean-burning natural gas. Instituting a moratorium may please some political constituencies in Nova Scotia but we should not be fooled into thinking it will make Nova Scotians any safer. Only that much poorer.

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