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Raucous crowd greets fracking review panel

This story was first published in the Halifax Examiner on Jul 24, 2014:


by Chris Benjamin

David Wheeler’s fracking roadshow reached Halifax last night and received its most boisterous heckling yet. Wheeler, president of Cape Breton University and sustainable business guru (he convinced the province to burn trees for energy), chairs an “independent review panel” investigating the potential for fracking in Nova Scotia.

Last night’s meeting was the eighth and largest of the panel’s 11 public engagement sessions on the “social, economic, environmental, and health implications of hydraulic fracturing practices and their associated wastewater streams.”

The evening started at 5:30 with a rally outside at the University of King’s College, where a few dozen people held No Frack signs and heard brief statements against hydraulic fracturing, the process used to extract natural gas from under shale rock.

Wheeler took the floor inside Alumni Hall at 6:05 to a mix of applause and boos from the more than 300 people filling the house. He introduced two of his fellow expert panelists (there are 10 in all), water expert Graham Gagnon of Dalhousie University and health sage Frank Athernon of the provincial Department of Health and Wellness. Wheeler pointed out that the review is academic and “evidence-based.”

Wheeler gave an abbreviated 45-minute slide presentation during which he was repeatedly interrupted by shouts from audience members criticizing the process as a corporate-controlled sham, some of them citing statistics and reports the panel didn’t include, such as a poll concluding that 69 percent of Nova Scotians want a continuation of the current fracking moratorium. “We want freaking solar energy!” one man shouted.

Wheeler repeatedly asked for “self-discipline and real dialogue.”

The panel is attempting to draw conclusions as it goes, and has already released a series of discussion papers. Details are refined after each session. “The report is 90 percent written,” Wheeler told the audience.

The conclusions, while not all that conclusive, should reassure anti-frackers to some extent. “We simply do not know that fracking is a good idea,” Wheeler said to thunderous applause. “We are not recommending we proceed now, or necessarily later. But there is a political decision to be made.”

He added that it was beyond the scope of the panel to make any more concrete recommendation than that. But the panel is recommending that if the province chooses to allow fracking, it should only be done with the consent of the community where the activities will take place.

Wheeler also said that the best data on fracking’s impacts may come from our New Brunswick neighbours’ unpopular fracking experiment, rather than what has already happened far away in the United States or Europe.

Following Wheeler, 23 people took turns at the microphones, venting and grilling the panel. One speaker, a geologist with St. Mary’s University, asked the audience to consider that all forms of energy production have environmental impacts, and wondered how many of the people opposed to fracking would accept a 2-megawatt wind turbine near home. Almost everyone in the room raised a hand.

Only one man, David Parks from Head of St. Margaret’s Bay, spoke in favour of fracking, arguing that it was done safely in BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan, and that nobody complained about Sable Island gas exploration.

The rest of the speakers piled on against not only fracking, but also the entire process being used by the provincial government and the fracking review. Their complaints can be summarized as:

  •     There are already far too many pollutants causing serious environmental health impacts, few of which are fully understood. And fracking companies don’t disclose which chemicals they use, though there are hundreds of them. “I know that hydraulic fracturing makes people sick,” said one speaker, a registered nurse, her voice shaking with emotion at the thought of environmental illness sufferers she’s treated.
  •     The impacts of fracking on climate change are not known, have not been explored, and are under-considered. “The gas will be burned in addition to other fuels, not instead of them,” one man said, ridiculing the notion that natural gas is a “transition” fuel. “Fracking is a bridge to renewables  like whiskey is a bridge to sobriety.”
  •     The panel recommends strict monitoring and environmental assessments of any future fracking projects, but Nova Scotia and Canada have poor track records on environmental enforcement, and almost no remaining capacity to conduct rigorous environmental assessments. “We no longer have the scientific capacity to do this,” said Tom Duck of Dalhousie’s physics and atmospheric science department. Jamie Simpson of East Coast Environmental Law added that it’s very difficult to get data on how much enforcement is actually happening in the province, but fines for environmental infractions are so small they’re considered “a business cost.”
  •     The review panel looked at water quality issues but not air and soil quality, or the impact on wildlife and farm animals.
  •     The oil and gas industry has a reprehensible environmental and social record and will have its way with little Nova Scotia.
  •     Shannon Sterling, a water quantity specialist at Dalhousie, challenged a panel conclusion that water extraction for fracking wouldn’t have a significant impact. There isn’t enough data to establish baseline conditions of Nova Scotia’s aquifers.
  •     A couple of geologists (including former Halifax councillor Peter Lund) worried about the impact of drilling so deeply through rocks and the spaces between, the potential for earthquakes and serious irreversible contamination of the water table. “Drinking a glass of water should be risk free,” another RN from Hants County said.
  •     Given the province’s history with toxic messes (Sydney tar ponds, Pictou pulp mill), what are the chances of anyone cleaning up a disaster should it occur? As a tool & dye maker from Fall River put it, “What do you do when the well casings break?”

At the heart of all the heckling, the fired-up testimonies of audience members showed a real fear for the future. They don’t trust the government, or its appointed academics, to (A) Listen to the people of the province and (B) protect them from a multibillion industry.

Wheeler, for his part, seemed pleased with the crowd’s passion, which exceeded the more cordial criticism he’s received at previous sessions. “We’ve heard similar concerns everywhere,” he told me as the evening closed. “It’s democracy at its best.”

Max Haiven, a professor of political imagination at NSCAD, doesn’t seem to agree. He received the night’s only standing ovation for dissecting the concept of public consultation. “The vast majority don’t believe the democratic process will work,” he said. “This will cause a political crisis because there are people here who will not let [fracking] happen [here.]” If fracking moves ahead in Nova Scotia, he said, the public reaction will dwarf the Elsipogtog protests in New Brunswick.

“Message received,” replied Wheeler.

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