An environmental regulatory agency in the United States has published a new major study that should lead to cautious lifting of moratoriums on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
Nova Scotia’s former NDP government imposed a moratorium on fracking and the current Liberal government extended it last August. New Brunswick imposed a moratorium in 2014.
The newly released four-year study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should give pause to even the most ardent opponents of fracking and hopefully, cautious regulators in the two Maritime provinces.
Although the comprehensive study only looked at impacts on drinking water resources, the study reached the same inescapable conclusions across many jurisdictions where fracking occurs in the United States.
The study found no evidence to sustain oft-repeated assertions that the processes involved in fracking have “led to widespread, systemic [adverse] impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.”
The study did find that contamination has occurred in a small number of cases.
This is not the first time the EPA has given fracking a green light. That said, one should not take the EPA’s approval to mean that regulations are entirely unnecessary. In his book Groundswell: The Case for Fracking, author Ezra Levant documented the EPA’s 2004 four-year study concluding fracking fluids posed little or no danger to underground sources of drinking water in the United States.
This should lead regulators in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to rethink their conclusions that the risks outweigh the rewards when it comes to fracking.
Make no mistake; forgoing opportunities gained from shale gas development afforded by fracking is serious.
An independent panel headed by Cape Breton University President David Wheeler concluded that unconventional oil and gas development could yield benefits to the regional economy in Nova Scotia to the tune of $1 billion a year and create 740 to 1,480 jobs during the development phase.
The report also stated that royalties to the province would peak at about $200 million a year around 40 years after drilling starts, delivering under $6 billion in total over a 60-year development and production timeline.
The Fraser Institute quoted former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna, who estimates that development of the shale gas industry in that province could, over time, result in $7 billion in royalties and tax revenues, although he did not specify a timeline. Author Levant, writing in 2014, points out that for a province with an annual budget of just under $7 billion, this amount was incredible. All this, considering that New Brunswick has the thickest shale gas reservoir in North America.
Some environmental groups have been extremely vocal in the debate after the release of the Wheeler report in favour of imposing moratoriums. Some in Halifax called for a further 10-year moratorium and one group in New Brunswick has even called for a permanent ban.
Unfortunately, the public is not well informed about the minimal risks, costs and benefits of fracking, so they may be susceptible to fear-laden messages.
Beyond the economics, fracking also yields a more environmentally clean natural gas energy source.
The 2014 Wheeler report was unequivocal in its pushback against the most radical critics of fracking. The 376-plus-page report concluded: “There is currently no evidence of catastrophic threats to public health in the short-to-medium term that would necessitate the banning of hydraulic fracturing outright.”
The report’s authors, however, did not think fracking should proceed in Nova Scotia until more research was conducted and more elaborate regulations were in place.
“Nevertheless, there is a clear need to put in place comprehensive baseline health and environmental monitoring, management and mitigation (risk reduction), strict regulations and enforcement.”
The report’s authors were clear in stressing they were not necessarily calling for a moratorium on fracking. Instead, they called upon decision-makers to keep an open mind about future developments and research.
The EPA study presents new research relevant to the matters at hand. Decision-makers in both provinces should endeavour to understand that fracking poses minimal risk to drinking water, and that existing risks can be properly mitigated.
The Wheeler report itself contained many Canadian, made-in-Nova Scotia recommendations for mitigating environmental and other effects from fracking. It contained 32 general and specific recommendations “to safeguard community health, local economies, ecosystem health and the environment.”
Legislators should develop new regulations to engage municipalities and the province’s Mi’kmaq communities in the process.
The EPA study shows that instead of siding with fear-mongering groups and misinforming the public, government decision-makers should take the initiative to develop proper community health and environmental regulations in order to lift poorly thought-out moratoriums.
It’s time to open up this key economic sector in their respective provinces to increase general revenue and provide more employment.
Joseph Quesnel is a research associate at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS.ca).