A recently published opinion survey by market research company Insight West on the views of British Columbians regarding the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline may give Canadians, and Atlantic Canadians specifically, reason to reflect on the prospects of greater energy development throughout Atlantic Canada.
The survey results demonstrate that one can care deeply about environmental standards and simultaneously favour economic progress and energy development.
Specifically, the B.C. survey found that opposition to Northern Gateway has decreased by 16 per cent and approval has increased by seven per cent in a few months.
These results do not mean that British Columbians have abandoned their environmental conscience. They continue to understand that there are risks to building pipelines and transporting bitumen through them. Eight-five per cent cited concerns about spills and environmental impact.
Yet, very similar numbers of study respondents agreed that significant economic benefits will come with the pipeline. Eighty-six per cent agreed that Northern Gateway will bring economic growth, 82 per cent think it will create new capital investment and 86 per cent believed it will create new jobs.
At the other end of the country, there is significant support for the Energy East pipeline, which would bring oil from Hardisty, Alta. to Saint John, N.B. An October survey by Corporate Research Associates showed 68 per cent support for it in Nova Scotia, the highest in Atlantic Canada. Atlantic Canadians seem to well understand the potential economic value of developing Energy East.
Not so for hydraulic fracturing (or fracking).
Fracking is a process by which deep rock layers are cracked using significant quantities of sand and water in order to release gas (or sometimes oil) trapped under them. Some people are concerned about possible water contamination from the technique.
Elections can disproportionately augment some things. Opposition to fracking in Nova Scotia went from 53 per cent last spring to 69 per cent last October at the time of the Nova Scotia election. The three major political parties all supported a ban on fracking until such a time as it is proven safe.
It was the same in B.C. during the last election in May when opposition to Northern Gate crystallized. Leading political figures, including then NDP leader Adrian Dix and B.C. Premier Christy Clark, opposed it, betting that reflecting existing concerns would win them votes. No major candidate extolling the economic virtues of the pipeline for British Columbians stood out, and the near full tilt in opposition to the pipeline during the campaign was on almost all the time.
But the high emotional pitch has now changed. In time, it can change among Atlantic Canadians too.
Contrary to what is misrepresented as a new technique, the idea of hydraulic fracturing has existed since before late U.S. president John Kennedy was in office.
Fracking has been used in Canada since the 1960s. Since then, more than 175,000 wells have been fracked in British Columbia and Alberta “without a case of harm to drinking water,” according to regulating agencies in both provinces. That number constitutes more than a third of all wells in this country in the last half-century.
In New Brunswick there have been 49 fracking operations since the mid-1980s, all without a single report of water contamination. In the United States around 90 per cent of 493,000 active natural gas wells in the country, across 31 states, were fracked.
These numbers do not constitute the unknown record of a new, untested technique that those concerned about its safety would have us believe. Rather, they indicate that concerns about the safety of fracking for water tables, while valid, are grossly exaggerated.
At what point do we cease to concentrate on the negative and stop rejecting the positive experiences of other jurisdictions?
Former Prime Minister Kim Campbell once said that election campaigns are not propitious times to have important policy discussions. The Nova Scotia and B.C. examples may illustrate what she had in mind. Elections, after all, have become emotionally charged and highly partisan shows.
The B.C. experience shows there can be a balanced attitude between concern about environmental risks and the large potential benefits of energy development.
Perhaps, once Nova Scotians hear from the commission led by Cape Breton University president David Wheeler — which is currently studying “the social, economic, environmental and health impacts” of fracking — the province’s ill-advised fracking ban can be lifted. Maybe then, the province can become an example of progress and the region may begin to enjoy in a balanced way the economic fruits of energy development through hydraulic fracturing.
Marco Navarro-Genie is President and CEO of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies