Anti-fracking parade float in Tatamagouche in 2011. Photo: Joan Baxter

Five years since Stephen McNeil’s Liberal government placed a moratorium on fracking in Nova Scotia, the Progressive Conservative party seems intent on putting it back on the agenda.

In February this year, the two PC members of the Standing Committee on Natural Resources and Economic Development — MLAs Pat Dunn and Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin — proposed two topics for discussion in the monthly committee meetings. One is uranium exploration. The other is “shale gas development,” a euphemism for the controversial process of high pressure hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — to get at onshore natural gas deposits.

Both practices are currently banned in Nova Scotia, and NDP committee members argued they should not be discussed by the committee.

But with Liberal support, the PCs managed to get both onto the agenda for future meetings.

Hence yesterday’s two-hour discussion on fracking at the committee meeting, with Simon d’Entremont, deputy minister of Energy and Mines, and Sandy MacMullin, executive director of petroleum resources in the department, on hand to respond to MLA questions.

Sandy MacMullin (l) and Simon d’Entremont (r). Photo: Joan Baxter.

It was a bizarre session, with only the NDP members willing to take a strong stand, making it clear that they didn’t think fracking should be on the agenda, grilling the witnesses about the environmental risks and costs of fracking, and reminding them that climate science shows an urgent need to move to renewables and away from all fossil fuels.

Jargon, jargon everywhere

Others around the table seemed anxious to try to to distance themselves from the obvious — that their discussion was really a test balloon intended to gauge public reaction to cracking the door open to fracking in the province. Negative and controversial aspects of fracking were studiously avoided or downplayed, and industry jargon and messaging prevailed.

In his introductory statement, Deputy Minister d’Entremont didn’t utter the words “climate change,” “greenhouse gases,” or “fossil fuels.” Only once did the statement mention the banned process in question, “high volume hydraulic fracturing in shales.”

In industry speak and the deputy minister’s statement, “shale gas” became “petroleum resource potential.”

Although the Department of Energy and Mines has studied only “two of seven areas of the province that we know have the right geology to contain oil or gas,” the deputy minister stated:

A safe estimate is that there’s roughly 36 trillion cubic feet of gas potential … and about seven trillion cubic feet could be recoverable.

Then this non sequitur:

Of course, that depends on world market prices … and it’s important to remember that it is spread out over a very large area.

PC MLA Pat Dunn

PC MLA Pat Dunn said they certainly realized that there would be no “drilling” [carefully avoiding using the f-word] “tomorrow, or in five years time, or maybe never.” He claimed that the purpose of the discussion was so they could “get educated and know what’s going on out there in this particular industry, especially when you’re dealing with a potential $60 billion industry.”

PC MLA Smith-McCrossin referred to the onshore atlas issued by the Department of Energy and Mines that showed a “potential resource” in the province of between $20 and $60 billion, and asked how confident the department was about those estimates.

Deputy Minister d’Entremont pointed out that those figures are actually an estimate of the resource “that’s there,” and that the reserves, the “economically retrievable numbers” are “quite a bit smaller” at $7 billion.

MacMullin admitted that all those numbers are “potential” and that they haven’t found the “resource” yet, just areas where it may be.

“It could be a lot more. It could be a lot less. We just don’t know.”

Should the moratorium be lifted, MacMullin said, it was unlikely there would be a “gold rush mentality” because so much is unknown about Nova Scotia’s “onshore natural gas endowment.”

“Open to conversation”

After the meeting, reporters asked d’Entremont whether there had been any formal requests to lift the moratorium on fracking. He said there hadn’t. Pressed on what the process would be, were such a request to be made, he replied:

We are just open to conversation. We’re reasonable people, if people say they have some ideas they want to talk any matter, about policy that we do in the department, they’re welcome to come and talk to us.

Asked if it would trigger a process to approve fracking should a county come forward with a formal request, he replied:

We haven’t crossed that path.

Pat Dunn, the PC MLA who put fracking on the committee agenda, told reporters:

Right now our party is pleased that there is a ban on fracking due to the fact that there’s just not enough information out there yet to convince us that it’s a safe process. 

As for why, then, he put it on the agenda, he claimed,

…because every single week there’s new technology coming forth, studies being done, work in that industry being done, we just want to know the up-to-date information that’s available for us.

NDP MLA Lisa Roberts. Photo: Joan Baxter

Lisa Roberts told reporters that she wanted to see the moratorium turned into legislation:

My sense is that this government doesn’t like to close the door on any potential oil and gas development. So they’re trying to have it both ways. The moratorium is in place, there’s no plans to change it and yet we haven’t proclaimed a law that makes the moratorium official. So, come and talk to us. And I really do feel that unfortunately, if the right company with the right proposal came talking, we would end up spending a whole bunch more of our time having the sorts of conversations we had today, when we should be talking about how we’re transitioning to a green future.

There was considerable public interest in yesterday’s committee meeting, despite little public notice.

The Nova Scotia Fracking Resource and Action Coalition (NOFRAC) submitted a summary of recent research on hydraulic fracturing to the committee, concluding that:

There is no reasonable basis for revisiting the existing legislative moratorium on hydraulic fracturing. The studies provide no grounds for re-opening the public debate, let alone lifting or weakening a moratorium. 

About 20 interested citizens, including provincial Green Party leader Thomas Trappenberg, showed up for the committee meeting.

Oshean Junega, a climate change activist with Extinction Rebellion Nova Scotia, said he was not surprised to see politicians talking about fracking again, invested as the government is in coal and non-renewable energy, instead of doing as he thinks it should be doing and the taking urgent action on climate change.

Pat Vinish, environmental activist from Hants County, said he attended the meeting to see “what was cooking”:

Because it [fracking] is being spoken of, you have to be concerned, which is why I wanted to monitor the meeting. I think there’s a lot of reasons why it won’t proceed, but you have to watch. We have to be wary.

If yesterday’s discussion was meant to be a test balloon for fracking in Nova Scotia, it failed to launch.

But that doesn’t mean that fracking is off the agenda in Nova Scotia.

Already last September, fracking enthusiasts organized a debate on the process in Pugwash, which I wrote about here.

And on May 2, the Cumberland Energy Authority is hosting a day-long symposium in Springhill on “onshore natural gas” — which, of course, means it’s really about fracking.

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. Does any party in Canada have a clear and costed plan to combat climate change or is it all just posturing and jockeying to gain votes ?