Debate Planned on Merits of Fracking

Commentary, Energy, Environment

They’re aiming for a unique accomplishment in Pugwash on Thursday night.

A group of citizens will try to host a constructive, rational debate on the merits of fracking.

And then, perhaps even more ambitiously, they’re going to try for a discussion where everyone listens to what others have to say.

“People do get emotional about it,” said Bert McWade, one of the organizers.

“But that’s why we’ve got retired judge Elizabeth Roscoe coming to moderate.”

She’d better bring her gavel.

The motion: Be it resolved that fracking would be good for Cumberland County.

In the opposed corner will be retired Dalhousie University economics professor Michael Bradfield.

Coming out from the pro corner will be Gerard Lucyshyn, vice- president at the Calgary-based Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

The bells ring at 7 p.m. on Thursday at the Northumberland Curling Club in Pugwash.

The event is sponsored by the Six Rivers Chamber of Commerce and will be followed by time for questions from the audience.

It’s not the first time this province has tried to have a constructive discussion on the controversial method of extracting natural gas.

More than five years ago, the then-NDP provincial government commissioned a group of academics and industry experts to do a wide ranging report on hydraulic fracturing — its opportunities, dangers and whether it should be done in Nova Scotia.

Over a year, the group did extensive research, held 11 public meetings across the province and filed a report that said that while the province isn’t currently equipped to allow fracking, there are steps that could be taken to ensure it could do so in relatively safely.

“We did conclude that there is little to no risk of catastrophic danger associated with hydraulic fracturing,” said David Wheeler, the former president of Cape Breton University who led the team.

“But an absence of evidence of risk does not mean risk doesn’t exist. So caution is absolutely required.”

They also found that the majority of Nova Scotians are against fracking.

Within days of receiving the 387-page report, the StephenMacNeil Liberal government announced legislation to ban the process outright – which was not one of the report’s recommendations.

“It appeared to a number of our panel members that the report wasn’t taken seriously by government,” said Wheeler.

“The panel was never invited in to make a presentation to government, the minister just turned around and said he was going to pass legislation against it without any consideration. A number of our panel members were very upset – these were eminent people from across the country who had pretty well volunteered to help Nova Scotia.”

The decision to ban it was also made before the province released its onshore petroleum atlas this past January.

That atlas estimates there is 4.3 trillion cubic feet of shale gas — which typically requires fracking — in the Windsor and Cumberland sub-basins.

Most of that is in the latter, which is primarily under the county with which it shares a name.

The estimated values of those reserves are between $20 and $60 billion at current market prices.

That money is locked under a county with a median annual income $4,200 less than the rest of the province and an unemployment rate of 11.4 per cent (Nova Scotia’s is at about 10).

With the Sable and Deep Panuke projects winding down the province is importing fracked natural gas from western Canada and the United States at disproportionately high prices due to a pipeline bottleneck near Boston.

At the same time, the province is investing in offshore oil and gas research.

In June, Energy Minister Geoff MacLellan pledged $11.8 million for an exploration program that takes core samples and makes maps of the ocean bottom and sub-bottom.

“If you’re not going to do onshore unconvential gas (fracking) knowing what the risks are, then you probably shouldn’t be doing offshore exploration either because the risks there are much greater and have been demonstrated,” said Wheeler.

“To that end you could turn around and say, if you’re doing offshore oil and gas, why not do onshore because the risks are much lower.”

Still, however, Wheeler thinks the ship has sailed on the fracking discussion.

Lifting the current legislation would require a debate and vote in the legislature.

“It would take enormous capital politically,” said Wheeler.

“And the future is in renewables anyway.”

But the debate is not over in Cumberland County.

“Government has nothing to do with this debate,” said McWade.

“This is for people to have a fair and transparent discussion.”

By: Aaron Beswick                    Originally printed in The Chronicle Herald