Hydraulic fracturing – commonly called fracking – may well become the political issue that polarizes Nova Scotians this year.
The practice has already generated huge controversy elsewhere in Canada, the US and Europe, and now it is raising political concerns both on mainland Nova Scotia and on Cape Breton Island, where industrial contamination and costly remediation are fresh in everyone’s memory.
In December 2013 the Nova Scotia government banned the importation of fracking waste water. The province already has a moratorium on fracking. The question that begs to be asked is: How close are we to giving an absolute “no” to fracking?
Fracking typically ignites environmental concerns in communities, especially First Nations. Last year, anti-fracking demonstrations took place in a number of Nova Scotia First Nations, and there will likely be more if government gives fracking the OK.
As the fracking issue has unfolded in other regions, politics and industry have collided over questions of safety, environmental degradation and quality of life.
Many observers point to “industry science” that declares fracking to be “safe.” But academic science identifies numerous potential public safety and health hazards from fracking. Fracking has already been defined in many communities and the narrative is strikingly similar wherever it occurs. But it will receive yet another definition in Nova Scotia as part of the mandate of the provincially contracted independent fracking review chaired by Cape Breton University president David Wheeler.
Fracking technology has been widely used in North America to access “unconventional” natural gas deposits trapped underground. It involves clearing land in preparation for the installation of wells. The wells are drilled to hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of metres deep. This is often followed by blasting millions of litres of water, chemicals and sand into the well to release natural gas or oil.
The industry claims that fracking is safe, and accuses environmentalists of spreading misinformation and creating a climate of fear at the expense of jobs and economic growth.
Many energy companies in the Maritimes are watching how Nova Scotia’s fracking review will proceed. The demand for natural gas in the Maritimes has been steadily increasing since the 2008-09 recession.
As a clean-burning fuel, natural gas has potential, especially as Nova Scotia phases out coal-fired electrical generation and moves toward gas-fired electrical generation. Many companies are lined up to benefit from widespread fracking in Nova Scotia.
Groups opposed to the procedure say fracking contaminates aquifers and places people’s health at risk. Chemicals believed to be carcinogenic are used. However, most energy companies have been reluctant to identify the chemicals they use, claiming that they constitute a “trade secret.”
Nova Scotians are currently dealing with fracking wastewater from exploratory drilling conducted in Hants County from 2005-07.
The Nova Scotia Fracking Resource and Action Coalition is the province-wide association of organizations and individuals opposed to hydraulic fracturing. In December, the coalition sent an open letter to the government, expressing a lack of confidence in the provincial review, which it doubts will provide an independent and holistic assessment of the effects of fracking. In fairness to the review chairman, the membership has not been finalized.
The federal Liberal, NDP and Green parties all oppose fracking. Environment Canada wants oil and gas companies to disclose what fluids are used in fracking. Provincial environmental acts stand to be violated if fracking results in water and soil contamination.
Opposition to fracking will not disappear, no matter how balanced and independent the provincial review is perceived to be. Such potential controversy points to the need for a provincial referendum. Nova Scotia has had three referendums: on importing liquor in 1920, on liquor control in 1929, and a plebiscite on Sunday shopping in 2004.
The future of fracking in Nova Scotia warrants a plebiscite.
Jim Guy, PhD, is professor emeritus of political science and international law at Cape Breton University.
First published in the Cape Breton Post, January 21, 2014.