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21st February 2018
Published February 21, 2018 - 5:00am
Last Updated February 21, 2018 - 5:00am

It shouldnít be surprising that hydraulic fracturing is a hot topic in Nova Scotia again. The McNeil government placed a ban on high-volume fracking in 2014. But you canít really ban discussion of a potential resource or advances in scientific or economic knowledge related to it, even if youíre not very keen to hear or learn more yourself.

And so a new debate on this method of ďstimulatingĒ the flow of oil and gas trapped in shale formations has itself been stimulated by the recent release of the Energy Departmentís Nova Scotia Onshore Petroleum Atlas.

Assembling the best available data and modelling, the atlas focuses on two geological formations with hydrocarbon potential, the Cumberland Sub-basin in Northern Nova Scotia and the Windsor Sub-basin south of the Minas Basin and Cobequid Bay.

It estimates some 6.5 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of recoverable natural gas lies in the two formations, of which 4.3 tcf would be shale gas requiring fracking to crack the rock and make it flow. The remainder is conventional gas and coal-bed methane. The atlas estimates a market value of $20-$60 billion for these reserves.

Given the potential of this resource to lift economic growth and public revenues, in a province that could use a lot more of both, itís reasonable that voices are calling on government to at least permit enough exploration to clarify the extent and value of shale reserves, so their public owners can make informed decisions on development.

But itís not surprising, either, that people who wanted a ban still believe fracking canít be safely regulated and presents threats to groundwater that canít be mitigated.

No one in government, after all, is doing work on how fracking might be well regulated or what the best practices and highest standards would look like in terms of Nova Scotiaís geology and hydrology. Apart from compiling the atlas, the province has made no effort in four years to improve our understanding of the risks and benefits of fracking or to help communities weigh them.

Following the atlas release, the premier and energy minister have said itís up to communities and industry to hold consultations and approach them if they have support for changing the ban. The government itself has no plan to change it or to further any consultation or discussion.

It shouldnít be that way. David Wheelerís year-long commission told us in 2014 that we didnít know enough about fracking to decide either way, to allow it to take place or to prohibit it. It concluded, logically enough, that we ought to acquire the information to make reasonable decisions about whether, where and how to allow fracking.

It recommended the highest standard of safeguards and regulation be in place before any development could proceed. It recommended a mechanism to allow communities to give or withhold informed consent and to share in the financial benefits of the resource if consent were given.

None of this prudent advice to learn, to consider new knowledge and to put informed precautionary measures in place has been followed. Against the commissionís advice, the government simply enacted a fracking ban and then left it in a curious limbo by not proclaiming it.

It didnít embark on any quest for fracking knowledge or regulatory excellence, so it hasnít learned a thing itself or advanced public understanding either. It hasnít made an effort to create a community consent framework or a way for communities to share royalties.

So much for lifelong learning and the knowledge economy. On fracking, government assumes we know all we want to know and thatís OK. It isnít. We should know the value of our public resources. Communities should have the best knowledge on which to base decisions about developing them. The province should be a leader in providing that, not a follower content to leave fracking knowledge fossilized and discussion mired in the same old place. It should take the commissionís advice. Good decisions result from learning more, not from closing our minds.