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Trust in Wheeler?

Cape Breton U President and Chief of Nova Scotia's Hydraulic Fracturing Review addresses NOFRAC's concerns

by Miles Howe

David Wheeler heads up the Nova Scotia hydraulic fracturing review. [Photo: cbu.ca]
David Wheeler heads up the Nova Scotia hydraulic fracturing review. [Photo: cbu.ca]

K'JIPUKTUK (HALIFAX) – David Wheeler, president of Cape Breton University, has the potentially unenviable task of heading up the Nova Scotia 'Hydraulic Fracturing Independent Review and Public Consultation' process.

Wheeler, who has chalked up a very impressive career as a scientist, an academic, a governmental advisor and a businessperson, has managed, over the years, to forge a curriculum vitae that is difficult to outrightly argue with. Granted, he's done a stint with BP, but as a sustainability consultant.

Closer to home, in Nova Scotia, Wheeler took part in the development of Efficiency Nova Scotia and assisted in the development of the province's targeted goal of 40% renewable-sourced electricity by 2020.

Basically, if there were a person to trust with an independent review of the highly contentious issue of hydraulic fracturing, of which there is currently a moratorium in place in Nova Scotia, the provincial government appears to be hoping that the general public will see Wheeler as the one with the experience to do the job.

Not everyone is as enthralled as expected, however.

On December 16th, The Nova Scotia Fracking Resource an Action Coalition (NOFRAC) went public with a letter addressed to newly appointed Nova Scotia premier Stephen MacNeil, as well as his ministers of energy and environment.

The letter doesn't so much cast doubt on Wheeler's credentials, as it does on the process that he has developed for the review, as well as the nature of the contract between Cape Breton University and the province that provides for the scope of the review.

NOFRAC's letter says the review as it stands is too narrow in scope, is too private, will happen too fast to be in-depth, and has members of industry sitting at the advisory level.

To NOFRAC, the firm six month deadline in which Wheeler and his panel must produce their review will simply not be enough time, and will lead to a slap-dash affair.

Of particular concern of being overlooked is that Nova Scotia has a unique geology, and earlier attempts to hydraulically fracture – even at the relatively small scale of 3 wells – has lead to a multi-year conundrum whereby millions of litres of radioactive water from these attempts still sits in leaking holding ponds in Kennetcook, without a solution in sight.

Over 7 million litres of that radioactive water, albeit before the Nova Scotia Department of Environment says it knew the water was radioactive, went right through the town of Windsor's municipal sewer system.

In defence of taking it slowly, NOFRAC points to the ongoing regulatory review of hydraulic fracturing in New York State, which has been continuing for eight years.

Wheeler, understandably, defends the review process and stresses the point that this is only an introductory review and that his hand-picked advisory board will be quite able to complete their work in six months.

“Anything that is independent and has a strong academic independence associated with it could go on indefinitely,” says Wheeler. “People can argue about: 'Well we need more information, we need more information, we need more information.'

“Ultimately, from a public policy point of view, what we have to do is provide full and comprehensive information based on the knowledge at hand at this moment...It is true to say, in some people's conception, that to have absolute certainty on everything, you could spend five or ten years on it and still not get to actual public policy recommendations.”

NOFRAC, for their part, is clear on what “more information” it is they want to see examined in Wheeler's review.

The group wants a “holistic, cradle to grave” approach, taking into account new information related to the health and environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing that is only now coming to light. They also fear that the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing will rely solely on a literature review-style analysis.

Wheeler, for his part, notes that the notion of constrictions on research, be it in method or subject, are fictitious. Aside from the obvious time limit of six months in which to prepare the review, Wheeler notes that there are no boundaries to what can be studied or incorporated into the review. For his part, the task at hand is to prepare a “rock solid” review.

What happens to that review afterwards, once it hits the political sphere, is beyond Wheeler's control.

“There's no possibility of us coming up with recommendations that will preempt proper processes of policy analysis and responses from the government of the day taking those recommendations and where there's uncertainties dealing with those uncertainties. I would encourage people who are nervous about the technology to separate in their minds a little bit the purpose of the review from the purpose of political action,” says Wheeler.

On the other hand, the act of hiring David Wheeler, an individual to whom the title of expert is applied nearly effortlessly, is arguably a political act.

Deferring to a 'specialist', and departing from the original plan of an 'in-house' review (which was the provincial government's original intent), is at once an admission on the part of government of a lack of ability on their own part, as well as an announcement on their part that they trust this individual to know what is right, and what is the right way to proceed.

In words, it is a responsibility that Wheeler takes seriously.

“It's my job to make sure [the review is] worthy of referencing for years to keep,” says Wheeler.

“Which is why we have to reflect the best of all thinking, whether it's from the industry, whether it's from an environmental perspective or a social perspective or from an Aboriginal perspective. I want this piece of work to be rock solid. And that is my responsibility, and why it has to be independent and why it has to avoid political skews or interest groups skews. It has to be absolutely rock solid otherwise it doesn't do anyone any favours and it doesn't reflect well on anyone involved.”

But while Wheeler claims to understand that the responsibility of the hydraulic fracturing review is a great one and requires a great deal of trust from a public that is understandably concerned, he appears hesitant to field criticism of the hand-picked advisors he has selected.

Rather than acknowledge, for example, that senior advisor Keith McLeod is CEO and chairman of Sproule – a 'petroleum consulting firm' based out of Calgary – and that this might raise the public's skepticism, instead Wheeler goes to the fallback position of the unfairness of bringing up past or present links, corporate or otherwise.

“Just because people have worked for particular industries or particular organizations, these are people who are providing expertise to a process that is completely fair and completely inclusive, but we need their expertise," says Wheeler. "Same thing with me, somebody could say that David Wheeler used to do work with Greenpeace, so he's totally in the thrall of the environmental movement. Or they could say he's worked for Suncor Energy, so he's totally in the pocket of the oil industry. And a) That's not true, b) It's insulting and c) it doesn't help to criticize people's credentials.”

In the realm of the Nova Scotia hydraulic fracturing review, according to Wheeler, it is the study itself that will exist in an influence-less vacuum of pure collegial effort.

To the credit of this argument, one would be hard pressed, especially in the world of fossil fuel development specialists, to find any accredited, scientific, expert, who has not sold their services at least on occasion to industrial demands.

NOFRAC is also concerned over the lack of transparency during the process. The draft “code of conduct”, penned by Wheeler, will keep confidential the discussions and goings on of the panel. 

But this concern is a “misunderstanding”, according to Wheeler.

It is not a matter of keeping secrets from an inquisitive public as much as it is a means to keep panelists away from the efforts of those who would sway their objectivity, one way or the other.

“We won't get good panelists if they think they're going to be lobbied or if they think they're going to be in some kind of major political process,” says Wheeler. “They'll simply not serve. This is a collegial process where we're looking at evidence, we're looking at information. Once the report's out there, then anyone can say whatever they like. What we don't want is individual panelists either feeling under pressure, being put under pressure, or feeling as they have to explain in the public domain what's going on.”

Stakeholders concerned over the hydraulic review are invited to submit their written concerns here.


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1433 words


There is no comparison

There is no comparison between Wheeler having once upon a time worked with Greenpeace, and the CV of senior advisor to the Review, Keith McLeod.

David Wheeler says “Just because people have worked for particular industries or particular organizations.."

Mr. McLeod is the CEO of a company whose website features Sproule as fracking experts for industry.

It's a "Dog & Pony Show"

The review is a decoy.  It is loaded with industry friendly members who will come out with a "go ahead it's safe" finding regaardless of the evidence.  They label environmentalists as "unscientific," which is a load of horse hockey and it's all a distraction anyway.  They know that a certain percentage of the population will believe them, especially since it mean they don't have to get out and protest or make an effort.  A certain percentage of the population want to believe them, because it means no interruption in their lives and they can follow their normal routine, which they don't like, but they're used to it.

This is a slave mentality! 

We are faced with the biggest threat to our communities that we have ever seen.  Hydro fracking of gas wells will render whole tracts of land uninhabitable for a long, long time.   Take a glass of water and put a few drops of used motor oil in it.  Not very refreshing is it!  Now realise that this is not the only pollution you'll have to deal with.  That water will have radium disolved in it as well, and other chemicals that are so dangerous they won't even tell us what's in it.  The air will carry chemicals that can burn your skin after only a few moment os exposure.  They won't tell us what they are either, but it's happened.  All sorts of violatile hydrocarbons will be filtering up through the very ground we're walking on and that will be accompnied by radon which will be released along with all the other poisons.

So why do we need more information?  Why are we even considering a review?  The decision is obvious.  Governments that still care about their people are banning this.  Governments that care only about the corporations and bribes are studying the process and using police violence to enforce corporate rule.  It's shear insanity!  What a world we live in!

I dont agree that 'the

I dont agree that 'the decision is obvious'. Maybe staring us in our faces, yes.

We do have to have some kind of public processes. The question is what kind we are getting.

As far as that goes, I would not say that the Wheeler Review IS a dog and pony show. Not yet anyway. But the signs are not good.

From his appointments so far, and for that matter including himself, the best that Dr. Wheeler could legitimately claim is that some of the people appointed COULD be seen as having some neutrality.

For the sake of the legitimacy of the Review, I'm sure there will be at least someone on the expert panel with a public health percpective. But all the initial and key appointments, including Dr. Wheeler himself, are heavily weighted towards giving the most scrutiny to economic outcomes and efficiency, and what is technically possible.

Ken Summers, you have been

Ken Summers, you have been dragging your heels and trying to build some sort of an empire out of the NOFRAC group since it started.  Now you're downplaying the danger of Fracking and thus enabling the gas company's agenda.  Surely you are not planted among the protesters as a corporate shill to water down our case and lull people into a state of complacency, but if you were you're comment above would be a great way to go about it.

You have to know what's at stake here.  I know you're not stupid.  Get onside please, or get out of the way.

We're All in This Together

Folks, let's not fall into the trap of divide-and-conquer. People in this struggle may approach it in different ways, and have different strategies. Let's maintain respect for each other and recognise we're working toward the same end, occasionally in different ways. Internal struggles will not be to our advantage. 

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