A year ago, the fracking moratoria in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were announced by the respective Liberal governments. While these two moratoria are very different in their structure and details - the common reason for their existence was the long and successful campaigning against hydraulic fracturing in the two provinces.
The appointment and work of the comparatively low key commission in New Brunswick has been the only news of significance since in New Brunswick, while virtually nothing concrete has surfaced over the year plus in Nova Scotia.
Nonetheless, jitters are spreading among fracking activists that reversals of the moratoria are impending. This has recently been dramatically and understandably fueled by the sudden firing of the internationally highly respected New Brunswick Chief Medical Officer, Eilish Cleary.
Cleary's firing has morphed into alarm ringing that the Gallant government plans to get rid of the fracking moratorium.
The firing of Dr. Cleary is shocking. It is outrageous - so outrageous that the Gallant government has not really tried to offer reasons. But the only “evidence” that immediately dumping the fracking moratorium is the driver in Cleary's firing is a rumour that a senior bureacrat said that was the case. Suppose she did, do we have any reason to trust the (alleged) assessment of a person we know nothing about and cannot ask?
For many weeks, there were clear warning signs that Dr. Cleary was under threat from the government. She had begun studies of the health effects of glyphosphates - heavily used in the forestry industry. Immediately, the power and the reach of the Irvings came up. They are the most obvious suspect for outside initiated “leaning” on the government to get rid of Dr. Cleary.... that she sticks her nose in where it should not be.
No Outside Company Has Any Interest in Fracking Here
There are other reasons for doubting the rationale behind the collective rush for the cliff that Dr. Cleary's firing is a clear sign that the fracking moratorium is about to be overturned: especially gas prices, short and long term. It will be at least several years before any company might even consider taking another crack at extraction in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
Let's turn again to the reason we have the NB moratorium in the first place: the impressive social movement that anyone who watches knows is very much still abuzz. And that is not a static thing. The Gallant government KNOWS that there will be a steep political price, and endless amounts of 'distraction' if they suddenly overturn the moratorium. What government would walk into that punishing gauntlet, when there are no possible trade-off benefits of oil companies coming here to set up shop during their governing mandate(s)?
Corridor Resources Fracking in Penobsquis
While people are busy ringing the alarm bells on a wholesale dumping of the New Brunswick fracking moratorium, a very likely threat is being overlooked. Even if the complete government red carpet was rolled out, no “outsider” company would be interested in setting up shop. But Corridor Resources with its 30 plus operating wells in Penobsquis, is locked in here. And if they cannot hydraulically fracture those wells, and more of them, they are dead. Their production, as with all fracked wells, is depleting rapidly. Through quirks of the continental gas marketing, they fetch a high price for the gas they have. So they are fine for the time being, but eventually the depletion of production will overtake them if it is not corrected.
In other words, Corridor Resources, must get Penobsquis excepted from the fracking moratorium. It is a matter of their survival, and they have been quietly organizing for months to effectively press for that. They have no small number of allies, including individual community members to start with.
It is prudent to assume that the Liberals would like to have fracking in NB, if they can manage it. It is more than prudent to assume that they will encourage Corridor- even if rather “quietly”. Maybe New Brunswickers should be expecting that, and preparing for it.
Here is a very plausible scenario for Spring 2016 - after the New Brunswick Commission delivers its recommendations for conditions that have to be met for lifting the moratorium.
Premier Gallant will follow by saying nice things and thanking the Commission members. Then he will throw something in about “getting social licence” - one of the 5 conditions that have to be met - that is even muddier and vaguer than how the Commission explained the practical requirements of getting social licence.
There is not a word to confirm alarmist predictions about the province wide moratorium or how long it might last. But the Premier does invite and encourage Corridor Resources to seek that [still undefined] social license for fracking in Penobsquis.
Activists would be just as incensed as if the province wide moratorium was simply ended then and there. But that is not what the general public will see. Fracking activists have told them the sky is falling. It did not, and the Premier actually comes off as reasonable and even handed. While the shale gas movement just greatly undermined their credibility in making an issue of what is transpiring for Penobsquis.
In Nova Scotia
Technically speaking Nova Scotia does not have a formal moratorium. It has a legislated ban on shale gas fracking. But that still lacks regulatory definition. And nothing at all is said by the Liberal government about other forms of hydraulic fracturing. As far as facts on the ground go, we have the same moratorium in Nova Scotia that existed before the ban was legislated for shale gas fracking..... with considerably more compelling force behind maintaining that moratorium.
The MacNeill government is so far chronically reluctant to go anywhere near the next required steps in concretely clarifying what would be required for fracking to be possible again. As in New Brunswick, it is prudent to assume that this Liberal government here, like the previous Dexter government, would 'secretly' like to see hydraulic fracturing based extraction in the province. The glue and the continuity for this now decade long dream is provided by the activist missionary zeal of the Energy Department's Petroleum Directorate.
But unlike with the civil servants of the Petroleum Directorate, there is all the difference in the world between what governing politicians would 'like' and what they will do. What this Liberal government will do has to fit into the calculus of political costs and benefits.
To make any kind of hydraulic fracking fossil fuel extraction possible in Nova Scotia, the government has to meet two very big conditions set out in last year's report of the Wheeler Review. For fracking to be possible in Nova Scotia there have to be “strong regulations” in place. Nova Scotia has none. And there has to be 'social licence' from affected communities, the Wheeler report going on to anchor social license in “informed community consent.” No token waving of wands with government declaring “there is social license for this project.”
These are tall orders for government to meet. And the process of getting there for government will be a lose-lose propostion of stirring up hornets' nests. Many a provincial government has been willing to endure that pain to get some resource extraction mega project. But the industry will not have any interest in launching even very small and uncertain projects here for at least several years.
Going back to the costs and benefits for government: the political costs absolutely stink for paving the way now for fracking to be possible again, and the benefits are non-existent. Hence the (unacknowledged) stalling by the Liberals on this front.
Jitters in Nova Scotia
You do not see the depth of alarm among fracking activists in Nova Scotia, when compared to New Brunswick, about government intentions. Events here are less dramatic than they are in New Brunswick.
But there are jitters. The petroleum industry lobby makes sure there are periodic articles. And they have hosted conferences where we are reminded once again of the need, the endless opportunities, and supposed benefits of getting on with fracking. Opposition Leader Jamie Baillie chimes in. And the Chronicle Herald makes sure the proponents get as much airing and support as possible.
People are concerned this is some kind of warm-up for the government saying it has changed its mind. It is not that simple. The industry speaks up because they have to. It is a bare minimum to keep their hopes for the future alive. The government does not have to respond to the industry, and Jamie Baillie and the PCs are easily deflected with minimalist replies.
Nova Scotia activists would do well to remember that their movement is very much in the stronger position, not the industry. It is the industry now who has to wage the uphill battle of unseating the staus quo. Activist complacency would end up being fatal, but there are grounds for tempering fears with realism.