Open Letter to Government

This week, NOFRAC wrote an open letter to government stating our concerns about the current provincial review of hydraulic fracturing in Nova Scotia.  The letter is posted below, and the entire letter with appendices is available here.

Honorable Sirs:

Nova Scotia Fracking Resource and Action Coalition (referred to as NOFRAC) is a Province-wide association of organizations and individuals who vigorously oppose hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas, commonly known as “fracking.”

We are disappointed that neither the Premier nor the Minister of Energy have had time to meet with us since the election. We had hoped to discuss our concerns about the Review of Hydraulic Fracturing with you directly and early in the process. Because our efforts to meet with you have not yet been successful, we are writing to outline our concerns about: (i) the contract entered into between the Province and Cape Breton University dated August 28, 2013 (“Contract”), which provides for a review of hydraulic fracturing under the guidance of Dr. David Wheeler (“Review”); and (ii) the procedure for the Review and the appointments for the Review presented thus far. We write now because it is not too late for the Government to amend the Contract and provide for a Review with the depth, scope and expertise required.

We can summarize our concerns in a few sentences. The Review as presently outlined, will not be the “complete and independent scientific review” promised by the Liberal Party in the party’s election platform. The Review process as presently set out by the Contract between the Minister responsible for the Department of Energy and Dr. Wheeler, does not allow the time nor provide a process for more than a cursory, superficial review of hydraulic fracturing with little or no attention to the specifics of the Nova Scotia context, geological, economic and human. Moreover the technical consultants recently appointed by Dr. Wheeler reflect a review that is likely to have a narrow, industry oriented focus, in which the health and social dimensions of the issue are not a priority. A truly independent review would be independent both of government and of industry.

The Liberal Party promised the public a moratorium “… until such a time as the practice is properly investigated and a complete and independent scientific review is completed” and the Party clearly stated, “until we can definitively determine that fracking will not harm our resources, our environment, or the general public in any way, the extraction procedure should be prohibited.” NOFRAC agrees that such careful scrutiny is essential where so much is at stake.

Given the complex, multiple issues involved in hydraulic fracturing, we believe that the short time frame, limited effort inherent in the Review and the technical consultants’ narrow and industry oriented backgrounds, will not provide: (i) the complete review called for by the present government, nor (ii) an evidentiary record and thorough analyses for the government to “definitively determine that fracking will not harm our resources, our environment, or the general public in any way.”

Our concerns arise based on our review of the Contract and announcements made to date about the Review.

We have a number of concerns. We have set out our most essential concerns with the Contract and the Review below, and have provided additional detail in the attached appendix.

1) At present, the Review has no focus beyond “hydraulic fracturing.” There is no clear question or questions that the Review is addressing. The Review will apparently not grapple with such basic questions as “What are the full nature and extent of the risks and costs and what are the benefits of hydraulic fracturing?” or “Would hydraulic fracturing benefit Nova Scotia and Nova Scotians as a whole.” It does not appear that the Review will evaluate and weigh all the material risks, downsides and potential benefits of hydraulic fracturing. Indeed it would be next to impossible for the Review panel to do so, given the limited time and resources allocated to the Review and the very limited scope of the panel members’ responsibility.

2) We have seen nothing in the Contract or in announcements about the Review which provides any reason to believe the Review will take a “holistic,” “cradle to grave” approach, evaluating the full impact of all material aspects of the new unconventional gas industry including hydraulic fracturing. Many of the issues, including health, environmental, social and economic impacts (including costs to be borne by the public and impacts on existing industries), can only be understood by considering all aspects of unconventional gas extraction, including cumulative impacts over time.

3) Potential impacts on human health will apparently only be considered through a literature review – and that literature review will seemingly be summarized for the Review panel’s consideration by three consultants who lack the background to evaluate the literature. Furthermore, a literature review alone will not provide a full understanding of this complex issue, where many health impacts are just emerging and being documented.

4) It appears that the unique geology of the Province, and other specific Nova Scotia realities will not be evaluated in depth. This is particularly disturbing because in a September 10, 2013 email, the now Premier, the Honorable Stephen McNeil noted the importance of a “complete moratorium” unless “an independent study and review showed the process could be safe in the Nova Scotia geological context”;

5) The Contract provides the Review is to be conducted within the context of the Province’s energy strategy and Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act. It is unclear why the Contract favours consideration of these two Acts, with no apparent consideration given to the provincial Environment Act, or the federal Species at Risk Act, Fisheries Act, Environmental Protection Act or rights of First Nations.

6) The Contract provides for one or more technical consultants who will write technical papers on the key subjects outlined by the review. These technical consultants will be engaged for a total of only 30 working days, including orientation, research and writing and are expected in these 30 days to summarize the full range of issues outlined by the review. This is very disturbing, because the concerns raised by hydraulic fracturing are not simple technical questions with clear, existing answers that an engineer or similar expert can be hired to investigate and report on. The narrow backgrounds of the senior technical advisors appointed by Dr. Wheeler only exacerbate this shortcoming. The issues are complex and contentious and scientific studies are relatively new and only beginning to generate results in many of the areas where the Review should be focusing its attention.

7) Potential panel members are being told in the Review’s Call for Nominations that they are expected to attend six half-day meetings. Outside of these meetings, their primary task is stated as being to review the technical papers prepared by the review’s technical consultant(s.) There does not appear to be an expectation that panel members will conduct in-depth review and evaluation of primary resources (for example, peer reviewed papers, experiences in other jurisdictions, gaps in information, etc.), compare conflicting evidence, assess emerging evidence and consider the range of reported experiences in areas where hydraulic fracturing is taking place. The minimal time commitment requested of panel members is significantly less than a college student would be expected to spend on a typical college course. The complex subject of hydraulic fracturing, with its potentially wide-ranging and long-term consequences for Nova Scotia, cannot be evaluated in such a limited time frame or with such a limited knowledge base. The time frame and expectations of review panelists does not allow for a comprehensive, in-depth review as promised by the new government.

8) The Contract and Review Process contain no provisions to ensure the public will have a full and fair opportunity to provide input and air their concerns at any critical stage of the panel’s work. The Review provided for in the Contract should have been similar to a full strategic environmental assessment (“SEA”), but even broader.

The role of the public should have started with scoping comments on what questions and concerns the panel should address, followed by a period of information gathering and consultation during which all interest groups have an opportunity to submit information, followed by an adequate opportunity for the public to review, evaluate and comment on the technical papers and following that, the panel’s draft report, and ending with an adequate opportunity to review, evaluate and comment on a proposed final report.

Because of the complexity of this issue, each comment period should be at least a few months long. Instead the Review panel will be rushed and the public’s opportunities for input will be limited and of very brief duration.

9) The Contract and Review process provide for public consultation only through use of online town hall style tools and one face-to-face meeting with key stakeholders – not the public at large. There are no public hearings, public meetings or public sessions. This works to the disadvantage of a large number of people. This process is quite different than the Aquaculture Review being carried out at the same time.

10) The draft “code of conduct” set out by Dr. Wheeler will keep the workings and discussions of the panel hidden from public view. The only communications to the public will be those the panel agrees to. A panel is not a jury or the inner circle of government, where no disagreements are allowed to reach the public. We believe that a key part of transparency is to allow panel members to express their opinions in public.

11) The Review is to be completed by a firm deadline of June 30, 2014. This is not a goal but a deadline. It does not give the Review panel the flexibility required to spend the time needed for readily foreseeable reasons, such as the extent of the information to be evaluated and the extent of the public’s desire to participate in the Review process. A normal SEA takes from two to four years. New York State’s review of fracking has been ongoing for eight years, as more and more issues emerge. The Contract should have provided that there is no deadline but rather a mandate to take all the time required to comprehensively cover the subject and all related areas of concern. The oil and gas in the shale and coal beds is not going anywhere. There’s no reason to rush.

Conclusion:

Nova Scotians were promised a thorough, independent scientific review of the entire industry. What we are getting is a very superficial look at hydraulic fracturing, in a very limited number of subject areas, based on summaries prepared by three consultants with narrow backgrounds. Even the best panel in the world would not be able to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of hydraulic fracturing covering all critical areas within the limits set by the Contract. The limitations in the Contract will not allow the panel to respond to the challenge posed by the government itself, to “definitively determine that fracking will not harm our resources, our environment, or the general public in any way…”

We wonder whether the discrepancy between the review promised by the Liberal Party and the Review described in the Contract and by public announcements about the Review originate with the apparent source of the Contract, namely the Department of Energy. The Department of Energy is devoted to the exploitation of oil and gas resources. The Department looks at hydraulic fracturing in a narrow, technical context. The Department does not have a mandate, or the expertise, to protect public health, insure sustainable rural development, assess potential harm to existing industries, or protect the environment.

We would like to see leadership of this issue in the hands of the Premier’s office. The Premier’s office is the only office in government that can ensure that the Contract and Review take into account the diverse impacts of hydraulic fracturing, which involve virtually every department in the government.

As we stated earlier, it is not too late for the Government to amend the Contract and provide for a review with the depth and scope required.
Your thoughtful consideration of this letter and a written response followed by appropriate action on your part and Dr. Wheeler’s would be very much appreciated by NOFRAC and the public at large. We would be happy to meet with you to discuss these issues further.

Very truly yours,
Nova Scotia Fracking Resource and Action Coalition

Click here to read the entire letter, including appendices.

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