Fractious debate a theme at Halifax fracking meeting, Review panel urged to ensure process is fair

Fractious debate a theme at Halifax fracking meeting, Review panel urged to ensure process is fair by Selena Ross, April 15, 2014
It didn’t take long for people to clash at the first public meeting in Halifax about the province’s fracking review. About 50 people showed up to the Bloomfield Centre on Tuesday evening to hear more about the process behind the review and to ask questions of its chairman, Cape Breton University president David Wheeler. Many of those questions were about big-picture frustrations with the fracking debate, with the frustrations sometimes spilling into exchanges among those who attended.

One man raised his voice after hearing more about the panel’s invitation to all members of the public to register as “stakeholders” and submit written evidence. “I personally don’t think that when somebody registers as a stakeholder, that makes them a stakeholder,” said the man, who did not introduce himself by name. “It’s been my experience in Nova Scotia that there are a lot of people in this province that will do anything to save the planet except take a science course.” The man told Wheeler he was a scientist. “Science is truth,” he said. “Can we have a show of hands of all the scientists in the room?” shot back Jennifer West of the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax. About a third of the hands in the room went up.

“Everyone’s view matters in this process, whether it’s a world expert or an individual with legitimate concerns,” said Wheeler. About 300 people have registered as stakeholders so far, said Wheeler, and about 70 per cent of those are interested citizens.

He said several times that the panel’s mandate is to weigh the available information about fracking, whether it is published science or not.

“I’m a great believer in evidence,” he said. “Evidence comes in all kinds of different forms.”

The nine-person panel, including water and geology experts, engineers and people from the oil and gas industry, released a tentative schedule for the next few months. The panel will publish each “chapter” of its review as it is completed, and then the public will have about two weeks to submit comments. Each chapter will be an exhaustive look at one topic — for example, the integrity of wells or potential health effects — with references included. The first two chapters, both expected in mid-May, will look at the estimated size of the oil and gas resource onshore in Nova Scotia, and the economics of extracting it.

Wheeler faced many questions from people for and against fracking on how he will ensure the panel will be fair.

One audience member, Trevor Parsons, questioned the order of the review, asking what would happen if the first report comes back indicating there’s a huge supply of gas in Nova Scotia. “If you put the possibility of 2,000 new jobs in front of a politician, particularly if they’re going to come in the next four years, nothing else will matter,” Parsons said. “The reason those two are at the front is because they are sort of foundational in what we’re dealing with,” said Wheeler. “If there isn’t any exploitable resource then, in a sense, we can all go home.”

Many times, the questions came back to who the panel considers qualified to speak about fracking. “The coverage and the individuals that speak on fracking, it’s with monumental ignorance,” said a man who said he worked in the offshore oil and gas industry. “I can tell you, the misinformation that floats around is disgraceful. I hope your committee would instill facts in whatever you do.”

Wheeler said the panel’s job is to present knowledge in an understandable manner. “We have this rule of thumb in our panel, which is that everything we produce, we produce in a way that can be understood by a smart 12th-grader.” [Emphasis added]

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