To frack or not to frack, that is the question the Nova Scotia government doesn’t have to think about for another two years. But it’s a question we should be asking ourselves, or a series of questions about energy and the economic future of this province.
It’s possible that Nova Scotia contains significant onshore reserves of natural gas trapped in the shales deep underground. These potential resources can only be exploited by the use of hydro-fracturing of the rock in which the gas is trapped. It might very well be possible to get the gas out of the ground and to market with little or no negative environmental fallout.
But before a rock is ever fractured, there’s already a nascent anti-fracking movement in Nova Scotia, one that cites every scary statistic about the practice and warns of yet another environmental holocaust to come. Its tone is little bit of oil sands scariness, with just a touch of anti-vaccine hysteria thrown in.
Clearly, it’s time to talk about fracking.
A 2004 study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency into hydro-fracking of coalbed methane wells “concluded there was little to no risk of fracturing fluid contaminating underground sources of drinking water.” However, the agency said it would continue to monitor and study the practice to see if that opinion should change.
The U.S. EPA is now conducting studies specifically related to natural gas exploration and development. That study is due to produce its initial findings late this year and to be completed in 2014. Nova Scotia’s policy makers will have the benefit of that research as they decide whether to allow the practice here or not.
The EPA also investigated complaints from Pavillion, Wyoming, where locals said gas fracturing by Calgary-based Encana Inc. had polluted their drinking water. That investigation did find evidence of “compounds likely associated with gas production practices, including hydraulic fracturing.” But it doesn’t make a direct link between Encana’s wells and Pavillion’s polluted wells. It does note that Encana is paying for the locals’ drinking water.
Pavillion has become a symbol for the anti-fracking movement, which is taking root here in Nova Scotia. The EPA’s Pavillion study does appear to illustrate the dangers of hydro-fracturing where drinking water sources are close by. And there is some evidence that fracking has had a role in some tiny earthquakes recorded over the past few years in the U.S.
But these studies do not prove that fracking is inherently dangerous, that it will pollute drinking water or that it will set off earthquakes. So while we’re waiting for more definitive word, let’s try to establish some perspective on what this means to this province.
Right now, most of our electricity is generated from coal. There’s really no dispute about its dangers, with an increasing body of evidence emerging that coal is far worse for climate health than natural gas or any other energy source. Scientists around the world are working on ways to make coal burn cleaner, but it will never be truly clean as an energy source.
Natural gas is way cleaner, which is not to say there are no dangers from so-called “clean” natural gas. Gas is certainly cleaner than coal or oil, but it’s not clean.
And Nova Scotia has to face facts. Gas supplies from Sable Island are drying up and the new Panuke development won’t be large enough to replace them.
And right now, natural gas is dirt cheap. It has become so plentiful that supply is vastly outpacing demand, prices are at 10-year lows and predicted to stay low for some time to come. That makes it a no-brainer choice to investigate ways of replacing coal as a power source in Nova Scotia with natural gas.
But when you come right down to it, the real problem is our continued dependence on fossil fuels. So we need a mature debate about how to go forward. This is something all the major participants would need to join: governments, Nova Scotia Power, consumers, industry and the activist community.
Nova Scotia is a weird place. We allow clear-cutting and radical forest practices. We allow hoovering fish off the sea bottom. Hell, we celebrate that. We allow coal plants to foul the air. But we are not even allowed to look for uranium while exploring for other resources. Nuclear power is strictly taboo, no matter how high electricity prices go. And now fracking. Why are we so precious about some environmental choices and not others? I wish I knew.
A freakout over fracking is coming, and NS stands the chance to lose its opportunity to exploit a cheap, plentiful and local energy source just as Sable is drying up and coal loses its lustre. We should be talking about that.