To Frack or Not to Frack? That Is the Question For Nova Scotia

Commentary, Environment, Joseph Quesnel

Hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as ‘Fracking,’ is a common technique to extract oil and gas from deep underground rock formations. During hydraulic fracturing, a special fluid is injected into a rock formation with enough pressures to fracture the oil- and gas-bearing rock.

It is mind boggling that the Nova Scotia government is not changing its ban on hydraulic fracturing. The Energy Department has been informed that the province is sitting on natural gas reserves worth between $20 billion and $60 billion. Fracking is needed to extract most of the 4.3-trillion cubic feet of gas.

But, Nova Scotia’s ban on fracking came after an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study in 2004 found that fracking did not pose any danger to underground sources of drinking water. The final report, issued in 2015, noted that fracking can contaminate drinking water, but, the authors were quick to point out how this could be prevented.

From a survey of news articles, the rationale for the ban has been caused by public pressure. Even though this was not the only reason, it was clearly an important consideration. But, bowing to public pressure is not always the best way to make good public policy, especially when the public is misinformed about an issue.

It is quite appalling that policy makers in Nova Scotia do not look to Alberta where fracking has been used for a long time and where it is tightly regulated.

The authors of the 2015 EPA study said that the evidence on fracking was inconclusive and more study was required. They did not make any recommendations on what should be done. That is, however, a far cry from a call to stop fracking immediately or to ban its future use. There is, in fact, little evidence to suggest that provinces should impose a moratorium on fracking.

The most recent evidence is clear, fracking can be done safely within a tightly regulated framework.

Growing evidence from Britain shows that good regulation is the answer, not bans.

In 2012, the British government commissioned a study on fracking that looked at groundwater contamination, well integrity, seismic risks, gas leakages, water management and environmental risks. The report was jointly published by the Royal Society–the oldest national scientific institution in the world–and the Royal Academy of Engineers. It clearly shows that risks associated with hydraulic fracturing are manageable if carried out under effective regulations and best practices.

But, the problem is that no matter how many studies come out showing that there is no evidence of widespread or systemic adverse environmental or health effects from fracking, the public–prompted by an energized and well-funded environmentalist movement–will continue to claim that fracking is a dangerous threat to the environment and to the public. For these reasons, the adversaries say, fracking must be stopped.

The perverse Dunning-Kruger Effect identified by psychologists revealed that the less we know about a topic, the more certain we are that we understand it. Interestingly, if we are in that state of mind, exposure to new facts and evidence rarely changes our minds, instead we are inclined to dig in our heels and resist the new information even more.

It seems that in Nova Scotia fracking is a textbook example of this psychological principle in practice.

Even so, Alberta is the busiest jurisdiction when it comes to fracking. How many Canadians know that fracking has been used in Alberta since the 1950s? In fact, fracking helped bring the giant Pembina oilfield near Drayton Valley into production in February 1953. Since then, over 170,000 wells have been fracked into production.  

In the U.S., Halliburton tried the first fracking in 1947. Even though fracking is very common, we have not seen widespread environmental or health effects. At worse, some studies have showen seismic effects caused by fracking, but none show effects that threaten public safety.

At best, the environmental activists rely on exaggerated anecdotal accounts. Many of these accounts are now the subject of litigation where the truth is being stretched to maximize potential pay-outs. This legal process is not good for resource development.

The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER)–the body regulating unconventional oil and gas development–is constantly updating its rules on fracking.  AER has issued many enforceable directives protecting groundwater, specifically ensuring that waste water is handled responsibly, and restricting shallow and dangerous fracturing operations.

If anything, Alberta should be a model for Nova Scotia and other provinces (New Brunswick and Quebec, for example, have also banned fracking) on the development of a safe regulatory framework for fracking rock formations to extract valuable reserves of oil and gas.

Without a doubt, natural gas and oil are more environmentally friendly than coal. Reducing our dependence on coal should be welcomed news for all Canadians.

With cooperation, Canadian provinces and territories could then serve as a model of safe fracking regulations for other countries, especially for the United States where President Trump has announced a “shale energy revolution.”

Following Alberta, all provinces and territories need to develop effective fracking regulations. There is no good reason for Nova Scotia, or any other province or territory, to outright ban fracking.