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Nova Scotia’s ban on fracking: We’ve come a long way. Not there yet.

by Ken Summers

Minister of Energy Andrew Younger announcing the government will ban shale gas fracking. Notably, banning only high volume hydraulic fracturing effectively opens the door for other forms of fracking that are currently not permitted in Nova Scotia.
Minister of Energy Andrew Younger announcing the government will ban shale gas fracking. Notably, banning only high volume hydraulic fracturing effectively opens the door for other forms of fracking that are currently not permitted in Nova Scotia.

Energy minister Andrew Younger promised last week when releasing the Wheeler Panel's Report on Hydraulic Fracturing that the government would decide on its course of action within a month. When Younger announced that decision yesterday, the quickness caught everyone by surprise.

Just about no one expected a ban on shale gas hydraulic fracturing. The Chronicle Herald was positively apoplectic with it’s shrill four piece barrage at the government.

Fracking activists knew that Younger's announcement was good news, but were left scratching their heads about what exactly the government was proposing to do. At first it was not clear that it was in practice a ban on shale gas fracturing.

But both in the Wednesday news conference, and in an extensive interview on CBC radio the next morning, Younger clearly laid out the process. This fall the government will bring in legislation prohibiting the use of high volume hydraulic fracturing of shale for oil or gas. The ban will be indefinite. And should public opinion shift in the future, repealing the ban will require new legislation with the attendant debate in the legislature, and the extensive parallel public discussion that would be guaranteed to trigger.

Over the course of months, 5 and 10 year moratoriums were suggested to the minister. To Andrew Younger's credit he came to the conclusion that the ban should be indefinite because we have no reason to expect that anything will have changed in those time frames that will resolve Nova Scotians profound concerns about hydraulic fracturing.

The Fine Print: the Wheeler Reports “Manageable Risks

The fine print in the Liberal government’s ban on shale gas fracking is not really their own doing. David Wheeler said from the time of his appointment by the NDP government that the end result would be “consensus building.” This has always meant that the industry also gets to put forward it's agenda with a bare minimum of filtering.

Industry and industry friendly Review staff and panel members got to write the crucial chapters on risks to water and the closely associated 'well bore integrity' that takes in greenhouse gas methane emissions as well as risks to our water.

These chapters were prominently featured in the Report's summaries and conclusions that the risks in hydraulic fracturing were “manageable.”

The industry lobbyists Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) were quick to seize on the Wheeler Report. And we can count on hearing more from them about those manageable risks and the mistake Nova Scotians have made.

The Wheeler Report in referring to those manageable risks claimed to be following the preceding and much more thorough Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) Report. But what they followed was quite selective, and nowhere does the CCA Report make reference to “manageable risks”- a notion at odds with the Wheeler Reports echo of the CCA Report that we need much more basic science to be able to assess the risks.

Significantly, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers has gone after the CCA Report hammer and tongs. But they like what they see in the Wheeler Report.

Coal Bed Methane

The minister went to great lengths to talk up the potential for developing coal bed methane in Nova Scotia, and specifically of the East Coast Ventures project in Stellarton. (see here and here) Younger also claimed community support and First Nations support for the Stellarton project. Neither was specified.

The business community in Stellarton and New Glasgow appears to support the project. The most that can be said of the general public is that there are no apparent protests. That is a very low bar for claiming community support, and completely at odds with the demands of “informed consent” that this government says it has accepted from the key Wheeler Report recommendations.

The government's hopes for coal bed methane is one of the places where the rubber hits the road with Younger's announcement that the ban on fracturing will only apply to high volume hydraulic fracturing of shale beds.

Hydraulic fracturing is not allowed in the current coal bed methane project. It also is not needed for test wells. But a coal bed methane field cannot be developed without a 'boost' from hydraulic fracturing of many of the wells in a producing field.

As long as the future for hydraulic fracturing in Nova Scotia was uncertain, East Coast Ventures and other potential coal bed methane tire kickers could not get the investors they need.

Whatever he intended, minister Younger has re-opened that door for them. The legislation that he has outlined would not prohibit the fracking of coal beds that are far closer to water aquifers than are the shale bed resources. The questions the Wheeler Panel raised were about all unconventional gas development, not just about shale bed gas extraction.

Nova Scotia has 'tight sand' gas formations similar to the McCully field with its over 30 producing wells and the myriad environmental and social problems in the Pennobsquis valley of New Brunswick. As with coal bed methane, and unlike shale gas extraction, tight sands extraction does not launch with hydraulic fracturing, but needs that to develop and maintain a producing field.

But since hydraulic fracturing of tight sands does not require high volume hydraulic fracturing, it also would be permitted under the legislation that minister Younger has proposed.

Minister Younger has not given a time line for when the legislation will be introduced in the legislature, nor given any indication of other discussions of the government's plans. So there is every reason for Nova Scotians to keep our eyes on the ball.

 

Ken Summers is a steering committe member of Nova Scotia Fracking Resource and Action Coalition (NOFRAC)

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