Thomas Duck
Thomas Duck

This is an op-ed written by Thomas J. Duck.

The public has spoken against proposals to frack for oil and gas in Nova Scotia.  Will premier Stephen McNeil and energy minister Andrew Younger listen?

Over the past two weeks the Nova Scotia Hydraulic Fracturing review panel has hosted eleven public meetings across the province to seek feedback on its reports [1-5].  At the end of it all, panel chair David Wheeler  described the consensus that emerged, saying “clearly, the vast majority who attended the meetings, probably 90 per cent plus, would be against it [6].”

I was at the public meeting in Halifax, and it was a very lively affair.  Organizers pegged the attendance at nearly 300 people, underscoring the high degree of public interest.  Speaker after speaker rose to oppose fracking, and received widespread applause.

There is another important element to the story, one that was missed in the accounts I have read so far: a large majority of the participants at the Halifax meeting were voting-age youth, the same youth who are so often accused of not voting.  And yet here they were, engaged in the political process and delivering their message loud-and-clear: they are angry.  Angry at a process that they feel is a sham, angry at governments for doing so little about environmental protection, and also angry at governments for putting corporate interests ahead of the public’s.

Most of all, they seem to be angry about how democracy is failing them.

One of the most compelling speeches came from a 17-year old who bravely stood to address the crowd.  After reminding us that she was not yet of an age to vote, she described a lifetime of education on the importance of dealing with environmental problems. She was dismayed that fracking was even in the conversation after all she had been taught.

The response of the provincial government was illuminating. Nova Scotia Energy Minister Andrew Younger decried the lack of decorum at the province-wide meetings and told the Chronicle-Herald “we certainly get a very large volume of letters and emails from people on the issue of fracking, quite frankly, both for and against” [7].  He said this, despite the obvious consensus at the meetings and despite the fact that 92% of written submissions to the public panel supported a continuation of the moratorium against fracking in Nova Scotia [8].

Younger’s statement speaks directly to why people have taken such a dim view of the panel’s work.  His words, which can be viewed as no more than personal opinion, directly contradict what has emerged from the transparent and accountable public process.  The reporter was remiss in not challenging the Minister to defend his claim and question how seriously his government will be taking the outcome of the panel’s consultations.

Younger also suggested some people “are not getting the opportunity to have their say because they feel somewhat intimidated by the louder, more aggressive people”. It is true that some audience members at the meeting I attended were overly loud and aggressive. The frustration level of our youth is boiling over, and understandably so. However, the one person who rose in support of fracking at the Halifax meeting was listened to with respect. To this I will add: this was a public meeting, and all sides were welcome to attend and air their views. Can it be true that the public is divided on this issue? Or is it more plausible that the public meetings actually reflect the public’s opinion?

And where were fracking’s proponents in the business community? Nobody should be surprised at a lack of trust in corporations who avoid public meetings where they might encounter divergent opinions and, yes, opposition.

The elephant in the room in this fracking debate must come to the fore. Climate change — simply put — is the most challenging environmental, social, and political problem the modern world has ever faced.  It is being caused by the burning of fossil fuels like fracked gas and oil.  Science shows that global temperatures have already risen by nearly a degree, and unless we take action there will be another three or more by the end of the century. Although temperature changes like this have been seen before, they have never taken place in the space of 100 years. Substantial environmental damage is expected, and this will put worldwide food and water security at risk [9].

In the end, we are either part of the problem or part of the solution. Fortunately, Nova Scotia is already on a trajectory toward a sustainable, self-reliant energy future [10]. We are recognized especially as energy efficiency leaders [11].  It should be patently obvious that the solution to our fossil fuel problem is not more fossil fuels [12].  Instead, let’s take inspiration from these young Nova Scotians — the future of our province — and embrace the more sustainable and prosperous choice.

Thomas J. Duck is a professor of Physics and Atmospheric Science at Dalhousie University, and is a fellow of the Broadbent Institute.

[1] Sparks fly at public session on fracking | Tom Ayers, Halifax Chronicle-Herald, 16 July 2014.

[2] People in Tatamagouche reject fracking | CBC News, 22 July 2014.

[3] Fracking drilled at meeting | Francis Campbell, Halifax Chronicle-Herald, 22 July 2014. |

[4] Fracking foes pitch moratorium or outright ban | Michael Lightstone, Halifax Chronicle-Herald, 23 July 2014. |

[5] Plenty of opposition at fracking panel meeting | Gordon Delaney, Halifax Chronicle-Herald, 24 Juny 2014.

[6] Fracking should be put on hold to allow for more study: David Wheeler | CP, 26 July 2014.

[7] Aggressive fracking opponents may be hijacking public sessions: Younger | Michael Gorman, Halifax Chronicle-Herald, 24 July 2014.

[8] Majority favour ban or moratorium on fracking in Nova Scotia: paper | CP, 2 July 2014.

[9] IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), 2013.

[10] N.S. secures sustainable, self-reliant energy future | David Wheeler, Halifax Chronicle-Herald, 3 December 2013.

[11] Nova Scotia now national leader in cutting energy waste | Tim Weis and Leslie Malone, Halifax Chronicle-Herald, 7 August 2013.

[12] Wishful Thinking About Natural Gas | Naomi Oreskes, TomDispatch, 27 July 2014.

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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  1. I was hoping this article would fulfill Tim Bousquet’s teaser, and present a thoughtful commentary by Tom Duck about “the elephant in the room,” Global warming. I agree this is the fundamental issue, an existential threat that trumps technical questions about whether fracking technology has reached the point where we can trust it to protect aquifers. Instead, most of the piece was a rehashing of the completely unsupported, and frankly incredible, claim that the panel is “a sham.”

    Clearly, there is a lot of opposition to fracking in Nova Scotia. Many boisterous opponents turned out for some of the panel meetings, and some of them were, as Duck acknowledged, “overly loud and aggressive.” He dismisses this as the exuberance of youth.

    Sure, it’s great to see young people engaged and active, but if the issue is as important as Tom Duck and I think it is, is it too much to ask young people to actually read and critique the material the panel has produced, pointing out where it has overlooked evidence and reached faulty conclusions? Can they not do that in a firm but civil fashion? Is it really good enough for young people to show up with their minds closed to any counter-arguments, to shout down the panel, and to denounce Wheeler as a patsy for the oil and gas industry (a risible proposition, if you know anything about his record)? Is encouraging and applauding this sort of know-nothing behaviour the best we can expect from a university professor? I don’t think so.

    Come on, Professor Duck. Give it another try. Stop defending anti-science bully tactics of the sort you rightly condemn when Stephen Harper employs them, and tell us why climate change should be at the centre of the fracking debate. Leave the histrionics aside and get back to the substance of the debate.

    (For the record, I oppose the use of natural gas, because I actually believe climate change is an existential threat, and the fugitive emissions problem appears to wipe out the modest carbon advantage attributed to gas over coal. But I want environmental decisions based on solid science, not yelling and ad hominem attacks by overindulged youngsters.)

    1. People use the resources they have available to them. ExxonMobil uses their billions in profits to buy ads, pay for fake science, and fund anti-denialist astroturf orgs. Youngsters generally don’t have billions of dollars to compete on that field, so they use their voices instead.

      It’s astonishing seeing the claim that a handful of college kids are the bad guys in the room with ever-so-polite Big Oil.

    2. I read the article as asking if the provincial government is going to respect the panel’s work, which no doubt includes collecting feedback from the public during meetings, otherwise the meetings would not be part of the process….. Likewise, it is great that young people are participating, who should not be dismissed as “overindulged youngsters” (overindulged in what? especially compared to boomers)

      I think it is more of an analysis of the panel-government-public-corporate interface than a discussion of the panel itself. I understand that Duck made the point about problems with implementation in his comments at the meeting, where he raised the potential of not having enough scientific capacity to enforce regulations.

      Of course we should all know that science and politics are intertwined, something that Duck knows about intimately. It is quite relevant to discuss how politics chooses to influence, use or not use scientific findings.

      The article also brings up some issues about intergenerational politics, which seem to be lost on Parker, based on his comments above. To young people climate change is not an abstract debate. It is about priorities, values, and their future. I’m happy the climate movement has supplemented its penchant for policy wonkishness with more inclusive political actions focusing on priorities and values.

  2. At the Halifax public meeting on fracking, quoting David Wheeler’s own reference on UCB’s web site about a solar technology research breakthrough that could significantly effect our energy supply within the next 10 years, I asked if the panel was posing the wrong question. Dr. Wheeler replied that panel members was posing the question the government had asked them to pose. Later I thought about at least two problems with his response. Firstly, Dr Wheeler had repeatedly insisted on the “academic” nature of the panel’s work. But surely the most important thing a good academic does is to be sure she or he is asking the right question.

    The second problem with David Wheeler’s response was that neither he nor other panel members explained why the government wants them to answer the fracking question when there are other, lower carbon emission solutions to our energy challenge almost at hand. Most of the audience seemed to think this was because of pressure from the fossil fuel industry. No doubt this is part of the answer. But is the bigger part of the answer the promise of royalties? In its typical department-by-department and short-term political thinking, is Government considering sufficiently the cost of monitoring fracking and the cost of mitigating the damage it may create? Certainly the Government needs to increase its revenue and politically it wishes to be seen doing so. Royalties, if there are enough of them, could help it avoid raising taxes.. The panel needs to investigate the wider context of Government’s revenue needs and how to address these without permitting fracking. Presumably the Government has not created a panel on increasing energy from solar because it can’t figure out how this could lead as easily to increased revenue..

  3. An argument about the use of the Precautionary Principle that has been put forward reads: Precautionary action does not always mean calling a halt or implementing a ban. It can also mean imposing a moratorium while further research is conducted, calling for monitoring of technologies and products already in use, adopting safer alternatives, and so forth. In addition, a broad precautionary approach will encourage the development of better technologies. I see nothing wrong with taking a significantly slower approach; I do believe that today’s technologies will change and become safer in the future.

    But ultimately the values of the residents who are local to the potential shale gas exploratory and recovery operations should be honoured… it is they who are being asked to shoulder the risks of these ventures and being guaranteed little but rhetoric as a consolation.

    It is easy for those living far away from the ares at risk to be swayed by offers of greater wealth and a better lifestyle. Not much research has been published about locations where fracking is already being done… is there any evidence that these promised lifestyle and economic benefits are presently occurring in those locations?