To frack, or not to frack Nova Scotia? That seems to be the question. Again.

There’s been a de facto moratorium on fracking — more specifically on “high-volume hydraulic fracturing in shale” — in the province since 2014, and oil and gas companies haven’t exactly been beating down our doors to get it lifted, demanding permission to frack the gas out of Nova Scotia.

But now, after years during which nobody seemed to be asking the F-question in the province, suddenly it is being asked again all over the place.

Last September, it was the subject of a debate in Pugwash. It was also the topic for discussion at the April 23 meeting of the province’s Standing Committee on Natural Resources and Economic Development. And it was the issue at the heart of a day-long symposium held in Springhill on Thursday, May 2, by the Cumberland Energy Authority.

Mind you, Thursday’s symposium in Springhill wasn’t presented as a discussion on fracking. Rather, it was billed as a discussion of “natural gas development.”

Which could mean a lot of things, as not all natural gas is equal. There is offshore natural gas, and Nova Scotia’s production of that ended in December 2018. There is also onshore gas, and in Nova Scotia, the Department of Energy and Mines identifies three kinds. Two are “unconventional:” (mostly shale) gas and coal bed methane. The other is conventional gas.

The Nova Scotia onshore petroleum atlas

According to the province’s 2017 onshore petroleum atlas, which estimates the natural gas resources in two study areas, Cumberland and Windsor, about two-thirds of the estimated resource is shale gas, just over a fifth is coal bed methane, and a measly 1% is conventional.

Coal bed methane and conventional gas are not the issue here. Shale gas is.

Shale gas, which comprises most of Nova Scotia’s estimated onshore natural gas deposits, needs to be fracked. Fracking generally involves huge amounts of water and sand mixed with a toxic cocktail of chemicals injected at high pressure thousands of metres underground, first vertically, and then horizontally, to open fissures and release the gas. It’s a controversial practice; posing many health risks, and scientists from Cornell University have suggested that the carbon footprint of fracked natural gas is worse than coal.

So any discussion of onshore natural gas in this province, like the Springhill symposium, is really a discussion about fracking. And any discussion about fracking in this province is fraught and divisive.

On one side, there are those with something to gain — and those who believe there is something to gain — from it, who generally argue that natural gas, fracked or not, is a bridge fossil fuel to a cleaner, renewable energy future. And, of course, they always promise lots of jobs.

On the other side are those who believe that fracking causes far more environmental and economic problems than it solves, who don’t think it’s worth risking groundwater, air quality, human health, their roads and bridges, and the future of the climate by developing more fossil fuel infrastructure and fracking the countryside.

Missing information

Both groups were represented at the Thursday symposium, which was presented as an occasion for learning about natural gas. About 85 people showed up, and it looked from the questions asked and audience reaction to speakers as if fracking sceptics and opponents slightly outnumbered the proponents.

People line up to ask questions at the fracking symposium. Photo: Joan Baxter

At least they did in the audience.

The reverse was the case on the stage among the presenters.

Of seven speakers, only two — Barb Harris and Ken Summers, both members of the Nova Scotia Fracking Resource and Action Coalition (NOFRAC) — were critical of onshore gas development. Harris and Summers had to contact the Cumberland Energy Authority themselves to be allotted time to present a no-fracking case.

Harris detailed a long list of environmental and health risks posed by the practice, refuting industry spin about the purported economic benefits and safety of fracking.

She said that the evidence of the harm caused to health, land, and water by fracking has been suppressed in the United States because industry usually makes non-disclosure settlements with affected landowners, so that the evidence of the harm is not made public.

Barb Harris. Photo: Joan Baxter

But, Harris said, it is also because there is a dearth of research. She referred to a 2019 scientific review of hydraulic fracturing in British Columbia, which revealed how little is known about the environmental impacts of fracking.

In his analysis of the BC review, Andrew Nikiforuk, investigative journalist and author of Slick water: Fracking and one insider’s stand against the world’s most powerful industry, examines some of those knowledge gaps that exist after decades of fracking in BC. He notes that while the report “occupies some 232 pages, the word ‘concerns,’ as in ‘concerns regarding environmental impact,’ pops up 130 times.”

Writes Nikiforuk:

In its final report, the three-member scientific panel tasked with the review expressed “concerns” about every part of its limited investigation, particularly around water, seismic hazards and gas migration. (It’s worth noting the review did not look at public health issues, cumulative land impacts, social costs, or the industry’s poor economic health or worker safety.)

And:

The word insufficient, as in “insufficient information,” peppers the report 27 times, while “unknown” appears 17 times.

Uncertain or uncertainty, as in “uncertain water quality,” appears nearly 50 times, while gaps, as in “important knowledge gaps,” litters the document 27 times.

A “fact-based” symposium

Suffice it to say that the proponents of fracking chosen to present at the Springhill symposium were not speaking about these gaps in our knowledge of fracking.

Ray Hickey, CEO of the Cumberland Energy Authority that hosted the event, told me that the intention was to “avoid the debate scenario” and keep the presentations “fact-based.” Asked how he identified the people best placed to deliver those “fact-based” presentations, Hickey said he met with the Department of Energy and Mines for a list of names of experts on the topic.

This may explain the preponderance of industry and pro-industry people on the podium.

Ray Ritcey, from the Maritime Energy Association. Photo: Joan Baxter

First up was Ray Ritcey, head of the Maritime Energy Association, a man with “35 years’ experience in the energy industry in Canada,” whose LinkedIn page says his “previous executive positions in the natural gas and electric industries included working with TransCanada Pipelines, Ontario Hydro, Enbridge and AltaGas.”

(Yes, that AltaGas, the parent company of Alton Gas Natural Storage, which wants to carve out giant salt caverns to store natural gas and dump vast quantities of salt brine into the Shubenacadie River, the same company that slapped an injunction on Mi’kmaq water protectors to evict them from the site, and lobbied long and often enough that it managed to convince the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans to alter legislation to allow the dumping of the salt brine in the river.)

And oh yes, Ray Ritcey is also the founding president of Heritage Gas Limited.

He was followed on stage by John Hawkins, the current president of Heritage Gas. Hawkins is one of five lobbyists registered with the province to promote his company’s interests.

Next came Jonathan McClelland, CEO of something called the Cumberland Business Connector, which says it was formed by a small group of unnamed “local business people” calling themselves Cumberland County Life, to take up “the challenge of the Ivany report for business to step up and take an active role in revitalizing the economy of Nova Scotia, especially rural Nova Scotia, for the benefit of us all.” While not an industry insider, McClelland valiantly tried to promote a go-slow approach to fracking, and legislation to keep the number of wells in check.

There was also Jennifer Matthews, of Canada’s largest oil and gas advocacy group, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP). Matthews is one of 32 CAPP lobbyists registered with the province of Nova Scotia, and one of the 35 registered to lobby on behalf of CAPP with the federal government.

Matthews argued that as members of a “society of convenience,” “a society that wants to get on cruise ships,” we depend on energy and take it for granted, and she warned that “we will have to make sacrifices” if we want to move away from that. We all use oil and gas, she pointed out, so we should use our own oil and gas, and [somehow] keep working towards reducing our greenhouse gases.

Last presenter of the day was Sandy MacMullin, executive director of the petroleum branch of the Department of Energy and Mines. He said he was there to present on behalf of Premier Stephen McNeil, whose schedule precluded his attendance.

It was McNeil’s government that, in 2014, brought in the moratorium on “high-volume hydraulic fracturing in shale” except for the “purpose of testing or research” with an amendment to the Petroleum Resources Act.

Although MacMullin admitted he is “an oil and gas guy” with a “bias,” he said he was not there to “to advocate for or against hydraulic fracturing.” He claimed that the Liberal government’s position “has been clear.”

Clear as fracking sludge

Where is the Cape Breton Spectator’s Mary Campbell when you need her to play a round of “Okay stop” with Sandy MacMullin, and fact-check his comment about the Liberal government’s clarity on fracking?

In reality, the Premier McNeil’s government’s real views on fracking have been about as clear as fracking sludge.

The government has failed to proclaim the amended Act that banned fracking in 2014, despite a call from the NDP to do so.

In January 2018, the Department of Energy released the onshore petroleum atlas, which dangled very big numbers and dollar signs in front of us, which would make any cash-strapped government start to the drool. The atlas states that “Nova Scotia may host natural gas resources worth $20 to $60 billion USD” in the Windsor and Cumberland study areas, although Sandy MacMullin recently said that those numbers were just “potential” because the actual “resource” hasn’t been found yet. Right on cue after the atlas was released, Ray Ritcey urged the government to reconsider its opposition to fracking.

In February 2018, Premier McNeil told the Halifax Chamber of Commerce that if communities decided they would give the provincial government “social licence for fracking to happen, we’d be happy to join them.” [I’ve taken the liberty of translating that to ordinary English: “convince someone else to take the lead so our Liberal government won’t have to suffer all the grief for permitting fracking.”]

Coincidentally, that same month, the Municipality of the District of Guysborough (the former stomping ground of councillor Lloyd Hines, now minister of transportation and infrastructure renewal in McNeil’s government), wrote to the premier asking that his government lift the moratorium on fracking, and requested that other Strait area municipalities to do the same. They cited the 2017 Nova Scotia onshore petroleum atlas, which showed “the economic potential for onshore hydrocarbon development.”

This seems odd, coming as it did from Guysborough. The possible deposits of onshore natural gas that the atlas identifies are concentrated in Cumberland, Colchester, Pictou and Hants counties. It identifies no natural gas deposits at all in Guysborough County.

Then again, maybe not so odd. The Guysborough council could provide the government with some of that “social licence” that McNeil said he needed to permit fracking in the province, without any fear that their constituents would be disturbed by gas companies knocking on their doors, turning their worlds upside down with drilling pads, and transforming their land and the countryside into a noisy, smelly, polluted industrial zone to frack for shale gas — because there wasn’t any.

PCs eager to talk about fracking

But it’s not just the Liberals who seem to be looking for someone to give them the “social licence” and open a back door to allow fracking in the province.

The Progressive Conservatives are still being cagey when asked about lifting the moratorium, but these days they seem very keen to talk about fracking.

It was PC MLA Pat Dunn who had shale gas development [translation: fracking] put on the agenda of the Standing Committee for Natural Resources and Economic Development.

PC MLAs Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin and Tory Rushton both spoke at the Springhill symposium.

MLA Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin. Photo: Facebook

Smith-McCrossin told the audience “there is great potential in onshore shale gas development”:

I believe strongly the path to greater prosperity for our people here in Cumberland involves investing in education and exploring opportunities, even if the opportunities are controversial. We cannot be led into the future with a culture of fear. We must have a mindset that’s open to opportunity, that relies on science, that relies on facts …

And:

Today, we as a community are learning and discussing this very important topic from experts in the field. Ultimately I believe communities should have the say in whether onshore gas development proceeds.

Smith-McCrossin was instrumental in getting fracking onto the agenda of the Municipality of Cumberland. According to Council spokesperson Shelley Hoeg, last year Smith-McCrossin passed the onshore petroleum atlas to a staff member of the Municipality of Cumberland, who then brought it to the attention of Council, noting that there was some discussion of lifting the moratorium on fracking.

This, in turn, led the councillors to assign themselves the homework of reading, chapter by chapter, the 387-page report of the Nova Scotia independent review panel on hydraulic fracturing (often called the Wheeler report, after its chair, David Wheeler). It took them more than six months.

Hoeg says the Cumberland Council wanted to have the information they needed should they be called upon one day to take a new stand on fracking, which they had voted against in 2013. The councillors completed their reading on Wednesday, May 1, the day before the symposium.

Seven councillors, more than half the Council, attended the symposium.

Councillor Lynne Welton says she was surprised when she learned a couple of weeks before they finished reading the report that the Cumberland Energy Authority had decided to organize a symposium on the subject. At some point, she believes the Council will take a vote on whether to send a letter to the province to request an end to the moratorium — or not. She, for one, intends to vote no.

Why fracking now?

The pro-industry arguments for developing (fracking) shale gas in Nova Scotia that we heard in Springhill go something like this.

Nova Scotia’s offshore natural gas production from the Sable Island platform and Deep Panuke is finished, and new exploration so far has turned up nothing.

All the oil and gas we are consuming in this province is now imported. The Maritime & Northeast Pipeline that used to carry Nova Scotia’s natural gas to the US, with branches to various parts of the province, is now, says Ray Ritcey, “under-utilized.”

The end of offshore gas production means the end of royalties to the province, which Sandy MacMullin said amounted to about $4 billion since the gas began flowing in 2000.

Natural gas burns more cleanly than coal, so it is promoted as an essential fossil fuel “bridge” that we will depend on for decades to come as we slowly move to renewables. If we try to move to renewables more quickly, energy would become far too expensive, chasing businesses away and making life unaffordable.

Since some of the gas we are consuming likely comes from fracking in the US, we might as well frack here.

Jennifer Matthews of CAPP said Canada is losing billions of dollars in investment in oil and gas because of uncertainty about Canadian policies and regulations, which made it hard to compete on the global market, and we need pipelines to move our oil and gas to market:

I won’t wax and wane [sic] about this. Why aren’t we proud of our resources? Why aren’t we developing our resources? Why aren’t we creating jobs?

“We are the third largest nation with crude oil reserves, but we continue to import from countries we could go to war with tomorrow,” said Matthews. [Countries to which we also sell arms, but who’s paying attention to such inconvenient details at CAPP?]

Fracking in western Canada

Despite the industry bluster to bolster support for shale gas development in the province, and business as usual when it comes to producing and using oil and gas, many at the symposium were questioning the rationale and timing for this campaign-by-any-other-name to open up the province to fracking for natural gas.

Barb Harris challenged the notion that the oil and gas industry is the best provider of jobs, pointing out that there are more jobs in building efficiency and renewables than there are in oil and gas. And:

I think if there was a solar lobby or a wind lobby that was as powerful as the oil and gas lobby, we wouldn’t be having this discussion today.

She also countered arguments from industry lobbyists that with the right regulations, unconventional gas development could be safe:

… this is the same industry that is lobbying consistently against responsible regulations for the industry. We’ve got Bill C-69 right now [new federal environmental assessment legislation], and the oil and gas industry is trying to block that.

Harry Thurston. Photo: Joan Baxter

In an interview after the presentations, naturalist and award-winning author Harry Thurston told me:

The thing that concerns me is that the industry spokesmen have been talking about management of risks. In fact, there’s no evidence in this province that we have managed resource-based industry risks in the past. And without the right regulatory framework we’re not going to do it going forward.

Others in the audience questioned the viability of the whole fracking industry, given what is happening in western Canada. There, gas companies have been going belly-up, partly because of low natural gas prices.

On April 30, CBC reported that Trident Exploration Corp. in Alberta had suddenly ceased operations, abandoning 4,700 wells. The Narwhal reports that in British Columbia, the government finds itself saddled with the enormous costs of cleaning up hundreds of orphaned wells and leaking wastewater ponds as fracking companies — three since last year — go bankrupt.

With so much abandoned infrastructure there for the taking in western Canada, asked one member of the audience in Springhill, why would any company come to Nova Scotia to invest in a whole new venture?

Ken Summers of NOFRAC told me that he wasn’t surprised to find himself fighting again to prevent fracking in Nova Scotia, because, he said, “I was pretty sure they’d never give up.” I asked him who hadn’t given up. He responded:

The industry. And what’s interesting, they have no interest in us. The actual companies, nobody wants to come here. We could just end the moratorium tomorrow, say don’t worry about regulations, and nobody would come here anyway.

So what, I asked, were all these recent fracking-related events and discussions all about? Said Summers:

Because industry doesn’t like moratoriums. You know, we’re [concerned citizens getting governments to ban fracking] setting a precedent, [and] not just us. If you look at a map of northeastern North America, [there are moratoriums in] New York, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia. This is a spreading disease for industry.

Summers thinks the recent push to get the moratorium lifted is “all about cracking resistance.” And he thinks it’s worthwhile keeping an eye on the proposed Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) terminal in Goldboro:

From the industry’s perspective, if they can get an LNG plant here, well, the fracking moratorium will fall overnight.

The moratorium

Maritime Energy Association CEO Ray Ritcey was one of 12 members of the panel, chaired by David Wheeler, which produced the review of hydraulic fracturing. But Ritcey doesn’t think it should have resulted in a moratorium. In his presentation Thursday, he said that when the report was finished, a committee went to government with a list of recommendations and said:

… ‘you can’t do this right away, but if you did some work, you could do this,’ and if this was amenable to government, then they would outline two general recommendations and 30 specific recommendations and the activity [fracking] could be carried out.”

Ritcey continued:

Unfortunately, when this went to the government, so this was the end of August [2014], the minister of energy of the day looked at this and decided they were going to table a ban on the use of hydraulic fracturing technology and it subsequently went to cabinet and legislation, and legislation was passed.

The environment minister to whom Ritcey was referring was Andrew Younger, who has since then left politics. Over social media messaging, Younger told me that several complex issues were taken into consideration when the government was deciding to put a moratorium on fracking:

We were in the midst of new court rulings on Indigenous consent. The assembly [of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs] had made it very clear that they would not agree to consent on fracking so even if someone wanted to frack, it was apparent that any such project would be held up in court. We were also in the middle of moving both the Shell and BP offshore exploration forward and we had substantial reason to believe that if we chose to allow fracking that we would have problems in various communities with the offshore projects, which really were the ones moving along and actually spending money in the province. Some people at both BP and Shell and their partners expressed concern they might get sideswiped and their projects made more difficult if a war over fracking ensued.

And:

I went to Calgary and Houston and met with some of the licence holders for onshore gas in NS, as well as [I] spoke to many industry people in NS. There were no plans for fracking, and any onshore projects, which were considering moving ahead, were not using fracking.

Younger continued:

With the amount of gas coming from the various US fields, there was no incentive to drill in NS. This remains so. There had been almost 200 dry wells already, and even projects fracked in NS under the [Rodney] MacDonald [PC] government had yielded uncommercial results. In order to move ahead and allow it, it had been proposed that a body much like the offshore regulator would be required. This would require an investment of millions of dollars annually with no current prospective of net return. At a time when budgets were already tight for the province. So it just did not seem viable.

Younger told me he read every letter and comment that came to the environment department, and that in addition to the Indigenous opposition to fracking, the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities also voted that it should not proceed. In addition, he said, “industry itself made no representation in support of it.”

Younger said that it’s worth noting the moratorium allowed for a “cooling off period” for discussions between opposing groups, and he concludes:

The fact that industry hasn’t used this time to address the issues raised in the report suggests to me that maybe they [lobbyists and advocacy groups] don’t really care about the legislation, but that it’s more of a good talking point to say they are fighting for members.

They all care about climate change

One of the most frustrating messages, repeated over and over again by the proponents of the oil and gas industry in Springhill, was their insistence that they all care about climate change, even as they made their case for extracting onshore shale gas in Nova Scotia and their assurance that natural gas — a fossil fuel — fracked or otherwise, was part of the process of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and tackling global warming.

I confess I might have had more patience for this line of reasoning had I not been listening recently to the voices of young people and children staging school strikes and demanding action on climate change around the world in defence of their own futures on this planet. Had I not recently watched the hour-long BBC documentary on climate change facts, which warns of climate “tipping points,” triggering catastrophic change that can’t be undone. In it is a particularly alarming bit of footage, where researchers show how the methane frozen into millions of lakes in the Arctic is being released as the ice melts, making the air flammable.

A still from the BBC documentary, Climate Change: The Facts

Mark Haslon, a climate scientist at the University College London, then informs us that methane is a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

And methane release is one of the big problems with fracking. Optical gas imaging of gas wells in BC show that 47% of active oil and gas wells were emitting “methane-rich plumes,” and methane traps “84 times as much heat as carbon dioxide.”

Just about the time that Jennifer Matthews of CAPP was telling us why the Canadian government needed to make sure it didn’t harm Canada’s “competitive” position for oil and gas investment with environmental regulations, I checked my phone and saw a CBC story about how permafrost is melting so fast in the Arctic, that researchers trying to study climate change are having trouble doing so because they’re losing their equipment in the melting permafrost.

Permafrost melting releases more than 50% more greenhouse gases than scientists previously thought.

The striking kids are right. We are in deep climate trouble, risking ecological collapse, and we need to transition quickly away from fossil fuels.

So is this really the time to be talking about lifting the ban on fracking in the province?

I asked Andrew Nikiforuk that question. This is his reply:

The reasons for maintaining a moratorium have grown in scale. First and foremost come the crazy economics of fracking. According to the Wall Street Journal the industry has spent more money than it earned over the last decade. Many companies have gone bankrupt. Second the research has definitely shown that the industry’s water demands and landscape impacts have multiplied overtime and grossly disrupted rural economies. Studies have also proved that the disruptive technology also devalues property in rural areas. Fracking that causes earthquakes, devalues rural property even more. The industry’s impact on public health, gas migration and groundwater overtime remains little studied or poorly understood. Even in British Columbia neither the industry nor that government knows where frackers are going to dump all their toxic waste water. Waste water disposal has also triggered earthquakes in BC.

And Nikiforuk asks:

Why would the province [of Nova Scotia] want to lift a moratorium that protects groundwater and property rights of small landowners and First Nations?

Why indeed.

Joan Baxter

Joan Baxter is an award-winning Nova Scotian journalist and author of seven books, including "The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest." Website: www.joanbaxter.ca;...

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  1. Reading here that shale gas isn’t an economically viable industry in Cumberland or Windsor or maybe anywhere (!) was a surprise. All PC NS Conservative Leader hopefuls, including Tim Houston, were, if I remember correctly, fracking-friendly. They promoted fracking as a potential and significant boost to the economy.

  2. Excellent article. Thanks for the reporting.
    We were lucky to have such a dedicated group of activists fight fracking when it came along and a concerned public who listened carefully.
    It seems, however, that we rely too much on companies not wanting to pillage our province ‘that badly’ in order to protect ourselves. What if a company really did want to come here and frack. We’d be toast. I recommend that any one who is concerned by that prospect support the activists maintaining the fight! On Facebook and twitter, Stop Alton Gas is a great place to start.

  3. The Cumberland Energy Authority was put in place in case investors for wind, solar, geothermal or tidal wanted assistance in getting a project off the ground here.

    The Cumberland Connector agency was put in place in case investors wanted assistance getting any kind of project off the ground here.

    It is now time to fund the Frack Off agency so those wanting Cumberland County water and soil protected have the tax payer funded means to do such.