The fracking freak-out to come

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.

About Dan Leger

Journalist, broadcaster, consultant. And sailor. I've been a pro journalist for more than 30 years as a reporter, writer, producer and senior editor. Parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press. Executive Producer, CBC Television News, Former Director of News Content at The Chronicle Herald. Gemini Award - Best Live Special Event Coverage (1999) and Atlantic Journalism Awards winner, Commentary (2007 and 2009).
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The fracking freak-out to come

  1. hang on maude says:

    Your arguments are weak because your examples are out of touch-“hoovering fish off the sea bottom?” Why make witty but mindless attacks on our wild fishery while large salmon grow outs poison our bays with pesticides that kill lobster, crab and shrimp and provide vectors for rapid spread of new virus’s like infectious salmon anemia (ISA) currently spreading off Shelburne. Why not just stick to mining? Why assume that gas extraction is different than the extraction of coal or gold? There is more than enough fodder from our mining industries if you wish to talk about weird practices. Understanding our mining industry and its legacy will help you understand why Nova Scotians fear fracking. Cheap shots at our fishermen won’t advance your arguments. And let’s stick to extraction because Nova Scotians will have to live with the legacy of mining gas through fracking, yet will reap little or no benefit from so called cheap, clean gas. How does fracking compare with the extraction of coal or gold, both have had consequences in Nova Scotia. Mercury from gold extraction remains. Westray is recent. Can mining ever be both safe and profitable? We have been mining in Nova Scotia for centuries. It’s naive to talk about fracking without putting it in the context of mining so why are you talking about fish and forests?

    • Dan Leger says:

      I don’t think I follow your argument that petroleum exploration must be put in some sort of context with mining. I certainly agree that mining has left an unwelcome inheritance in Nova Scotia and in many other places. And don’t distort what I’m saying. If the science is done and fracking can’t be carried out safely, it shouldn’t be approved. But that should be an evidence-based decision, not one based on fear and superstition.

  2. Joanne MacPherson says:

    Fear and superstition, eh? Okay lets go there.

    About fracking you said “NS stands to lose its opportunity to exploit a cheap, plentiful and natural resource.

    Where have I seen that argument made before? Let me think. What is it you Nova Scotia-based journalists say about cheap, plentiful, natural resources just ripe for the exploitation? Donkin Coal! Lord thundering Jesus, wasn’t your former employer quite the cheerleading section for the Donkin strip mine being reopened. All the benefits were listed – 300 jobs, tax revenues, and cheap coal mined right here at home in dear old Nova Scotia, what is our f*ucking problem with that?

    The Citizens Against Strip Mining articulately laid out the problems. You are likely and inadvertently quoting one of these citizens when you write about how it is a no-brainer burning coal is stupid, dirty and unsafe and we need to stop doing this. They are saying the exact same thing about fracking. Sure we will all agree with you that FRACKING IS THE CHEAPEST WAY TO EXPLOIT A CHEAP, PLENTIFUL AND NATURAL RESOURCE ‘

Leave a Reply