A few dozen protestors greater the fracking review panel at King's College. Photo: Chris Benjamin
A few dozen protestors greater the fracking review panel at King’s College. Photo: Chris Benjamin
A few dozen protestors greater the fracking review panel at King’s College. Photo: Chris Benjamin

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.”

David Wheeler. Photo: Chris Benjamin
David Wheeler. Photo: Chris Benjamin

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
Shannon Stirling. Photo: Chris Benjamin
Shannon Stirling. Photo: Chris Benjamin

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.

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

    Join the Conversation


    Only subscribers to the Halifax Examiner may comment on articles. We moderate all comments. Be respectful; whenever possible, provide links to credible documentary evidence to back up your factual claims. Please read our Commenting Policy.
    1. I am concerned about the future of community engagement in this province. Many people, including myself, have advocated for years for the opportunity for community members to have a voice at the table so their concerns can be heard. Chris said that many people in the audience provided a lot of science as well. That is great, and it is also important that they can articulate their fears and concerns as well, because those are important too.

      But a bunch of people booing someone before he gets a chance to speak, and to interrupt and heckle him when he does, is not what community engagement supporters have been advocating for. There seems to be more and more of this nonsense going on. I have been booed and heckled myself when I have acted as an independent facilitator working to ensure that the community gets a chance to raise concerns and challenge a proponent.

      If this is all that we are going to get out of community engagement, organized disorderly conduct, then I think we have to rethink how we do it. Or better yet, the people organizing the heckling should stop and ask themselves if they are taking proper advantage of an opportunity to have meaningful input.

    2. The statement about Wheeler convincing the province to “burn trees for energy” at the beginning of this story is a bit disingenuous. Of course, people should have strong opinions about the controversial topic of biomass energy, and the ultimate effect of Wheeler’s recommendation on biomass. There might also be lessons to be learned about the recommendation made for high-quality regulations on biomass energy made back then, how that turned out, and what that should mean for the promise of high-quality regulations against fracking. Perhaps a precautionary principle that includes the potential for regulatory failure suggests the need for a moratorium against fracking? The article provides a nice survey of these issues, by noting the interventions of Tom Duck and Jamie Simpson. Drawing such a connection between the biomass case and fracking would be more illuminating than the remark at the beginning of the article.

      To present a fair picture of Wheeler’s history you should also mention that he was involved in similar processes that recommended the creation of Efficiency Nova Scotia, which now leads the country in energy savings (saving a kwh is cheaper than natural gas, even with the price drop due to the fracking hype). The same process that is mentioned in terms of biomass also led to a 40% renewable electricity target in the province and a community feed-in tariff policy (which has unfortunately since been scaled back by the current government and could have presented a more robust alternative to both natural gas and large-scale biomass).

      Full disclosure, I was involved in both of these previous processes as a stakeholder and then a consultant. You can read about it here https://www.ecologyaction.ca/files/images-documents/file/BTI/EAC-BTI-Spring-low-res.pdf

    3. This is one area I couldn’t give a rat’s ass what the public thinks. Most of the anti fracking crowd quotes polls, anecdotal tales and statistics pulled out if their backsides. When someone tries to present scientific data they act like Harper does about global warming. I don’t know enough to form an opinion yet and want to hear informed fact based arguments. I’m tired of the hippie dippy left wing chanters and ranters.

      1. Tim, whatever you think of the protestors, Shannon Stirling, Tom Duck, and the unnamed geologists, all quoted in the story, are in fact scientists.

        1. Yes, there was a lot of science presented from the audience, and some pretty sound policy analysis too. There was a marine conservationist who presented, a respected energy expert from Ecology Action Centre, and an engineer with expertise in wastewater management – all opposed to fracking.

          Interestingly though, the public opposition to fracking is so strong across the province that any governing political party has to take it into serious consideration if it wants to stay in power.

          1. I have no problem with those experts presenting facts on either side and I am as of yet undecided as no matter what anyone says nothing presented by either side is conclusive. It is specifically the ranters and chanters I have a problem with and those trying to BS the public in to taking a position based purely on emotion.

            1. I don’t think you need any especial scientific credential to have an opinion on these things. Myself, I don’t want any increases in GHG emissions, and so oppose all new fossil fuel extraction proposals. The fate of the Earth stands in the balance.

            2. Tim Pratt has summed this up accurately. The anti-fracking crowd (and, lamentably, Tim Bousquet himself) will only accept conclusions that match the ones they started with. They respond to the panel’s science-based evidence by shouting down speakers, tossing off dubious anecdotes and public opinion polls, threats of mayhem, and outrageous personal attacks on the integrity of panel members they know nothing about. Have a look at Wheeler’s resume. His environmental credentials are impeccable, so much so that the oil and gas industry received his appointment with dismay. This is the problem with the fracking debate. Both sides are driven entirely by preordained conclusions. Finding information and evidence that is not tainted with bias one way or the other is all but impossible. The panel has done an excellent job finding and sorting through balanced, science-based evidence, and Nova Scotia owes its members heartfelt thanks. Instead, the bullies on the anti-fracking side react to its measured, balanced presentations with, as Tim Pratt said, the same know-nothing intolerance that the Harper administration shows for science. It’s no more becoming on the left, or on the most important independent journalist in Nova Scotia, than it is on the Harper bullies. It’s a disgrace, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.

            3. Parker, I addressed only the GHG side of the issue. It seems inarguable that fracking will increase GHG emissions. The stuff’s in the ground. If you keep it there, no emissions from that stuff. Sure, we’ll continue to mine and burn other fossil fuels, but each time we open a new mine, a new well, a new fracking operation…more GHG emissions. Keeping the stuff in the ground doesn’t solve the problem, but we can’t solve the problem without ALSO keeping the stuff in the ground.

            4. Actually, Tim, you haven’t objected solely on GHG grounds. You have consistently an incorrectly portrayed the panel as toadies to the oil and gas industry. That does your readers a disservice.

              I happen to agree with you on the GHG issue. (Although the fair approach is not to compare fracking to zero GHG. We don’t live in a zero-GHG world. It should be compared to the fuels it will replace.)

              Gas releases only about half as much carbon dioxide as coal—not great, but certainly an improvement. The problem is that some recent studies have shown fugitive emissions of gas during exploration, discovery, development, flaring, production, transportation, and use are higher than previously thought.

              Fugitive gas emissions put methane into the atmosphere. Methane has 20x more the GHG impact of carbon dioxide. If as little as 2.5% of gas is lost to fugitive emissions during the steps I listed, then the benefit over coal is erased. If more than 2.5% is lost, then gas is even worse than coal in GHG terms.

              We need precise information about fugitive emissions before recommending gas on a GHG basis.

              On the other hand, it is beginning to look as though the issues that most inflame anti-fracking opinion—namely, impacts on the water table and human health—are overblown. There have been some horrendous abuses, but properly done, water tables won’t likely be impacted.

            5. I don’t see that gas will “replace” any fuels. That’s the rub. Sure, we’ll burn gas where and when it’s cheaper, but we’ll still burn the other stuff too, because the wells are already up and running, and no one is talking about capping them. Quite the contrary. We’re rushing headlong into increasing ALL types of fossil fuel burning. It’s easier to keep the untapped stuff in the ground than it is to cap existing producing wells before they are exhausted.

            6. “the fair approach is not to compare fracking to zero GHG. We don’t live in a zero-GHG world. It should be compared to the fuels it will replace.”

              Tim already mentioned that it will not “replace” anything, but rather add to it. A more reasonable comparison is to the opportunity cost, or what you could use for energy instead of natural gas. For example, you could simply use less energy through efficiency programs. You could use renewable energy sources. You could use nuclear power. You could also keep using coal and oil, but not indefinitely. Compared to renewables and efficiency, fracking falls very short on GHG emissions alone.

              There has been at least one reputable report indicating that fracking is responsible for more GHG emissions than it could possible prevent, even assuming we only use coal and oil going forward. Maybe that’s what you were referring to, Parker. It was by Cornell University. (See http://www.eeb.cornell.edu/howarth/Howarth%20et%20al%20%202011.pdf.) It was not mentioned during Wheeler’s presentation. Critics are right that climate change and renewable alternatives have not been studied in depth as part of this, despite Wheeler’s strong interest in the subject.

              It’s also inaccurate to say “it is beginning to look as though the issues that most inflame anti-fracking opinion—namely, impacts on the water table and human health—are overblown.” That is not the panel’s conclusion. Reading their discussion papers, listening to them speak, the phrase of the day is “not enough information; more study needed.” Which is why they are being very cautious, in fact invoking the Precautionary Principle. The chemicals used are in fact largely unknown; their impacts in the ground, air, and water, and thus on people, particularly here, are unknown. The risk therefore is quite high.

              The cynicism on hand at these fracking sessions is the result of a long history of fake public consultation in this province. And the way the session was set up doesn’t help. Compare it to the session on the Africville dog park, where city staff came with more questions (for the participants) than answers. In Halifax, Wheeler (whose environmental record isn’t impeccable if you ask forest conservationists) et al came with a mostly-written report and took comments with little clarity on how the 300+ people there had any real influence on the outcome. Shouting, while not exactly good Canadian manners, was a form of protesting the process, rather than bullying.

            7. I like Tim Pratt’s approach. No, under law you don’t have to have any information or knowledge to form an opinion on a matter. You may argue that the moonlight should have a stronger hint of green in it, and that the death penalty would reduce parking infractions. This is your right and privilege.

              But wouldn’t it be nice if more citizens would strive to become knowledgeable and educated on a matter before they decide what their stance on it is?

    4. Does anyone else get the feeling that these engagement sessions are little more than theatre, and in the end, this group will recommend what they want, regardless of public opinion?

      Why is the government and private sector so seemingly against offshore wind farms, given we have some of the strongest average winds in the country (source: http://www.windatlas.ca/en/maps.php) and tidal power, given that we have some of the most powerful tides in the world.
      Fracking has it’s place, in locations where solar, wind and hydro aren’t feasible, but we have all of those in Nova Scotia. Here’s a map of the photovoltaic potential across Canada (http://pv.nrcan.gc.ca/pvmapper.php?LAYERS=2057,4240&SETS=1707,1708,1709,1710,1122&ViewRegion=-2508487%2C5404897%2C3080843%2C10464288&title_e=PV+potential+and+insolation&title_f=Potentiel+photovolta%C3%AFque+et+ensoleillement&lang=e), and we average about the same as Germany, who is one of the biggest developers of solar energy in the world: http://www.intellectualtakeout.org/sites/www.intellectualtakeout.org/files/imagecache/chart_content/chart-graph/US%2520Solar%2520Regions%5B1%5D.gif

      1. What makes you believe that the Province is aganst tidal power? As far as I know, Nova Scotia has the only Tidal Power plant in all of North America. I’ve also been told that Open Hydro (from Ireland) will be back for trial run of their redesigned turbine next year.

          1. That doesn’t mean they are against tidal power. They had a project with four different companies/consortiae to come and do test installations. One of the four, Open Hydro, got something going, and their turbine was destroyed almost immediately. (They didn’t even notice immediately, I believe.) Then, the other three didn’t even try to put anything in the water – yet (maybe they went back to the drawing bord, as did Open Hydro).

            This is technologically very challenging. The water forces in the Bay of Fundy are insanely strong. There is a reason there are so few Tidal Power plants in the world. It is not lack of want.