An independent report on fracking has recommended a temporary moratorium on the controversial process and says that communities should give permission before it can proceed.
The interdisciplinary expert panel set up by the Nova Scotia regional government says the science of fracking is relatively unknown and therefore its introduction should be delayed in the Province until the science and its environmental effects are better understood.
It recommends continuing scientific, economic and social modelling to test if hydraulic fracturing is the best answer to the Canadian province’s energy needs and makes more than 30 recommendations in cases where fracking is given the go-ahead.
The Report’s conclusions are in stark contrast to the ‘dash for gas’ policy approach taken by the UK and the US governments.
The Chair of the Panel, Professor David Wheeler, President of the Cape Breton University and former Pro Vice-Chancellor of Plymouth University, said the recommendations were ‘game changing’ and that governments ignore them ‘at their peril’.
The Report, which took a year to complete, says that there is insufficient knowledge at the present time to describe how theoretical or actual risks and benefits may fall both in the short and the long term at the community level.
Because of this shortfall, if any unconventional gas and oil development activity were to be permitted, adequate baseline monitoring would need to be instituted, effective regulations put in place and enforced, and formal Health, Social and Environmental Impact Assessments conducted following a precautionary approach.
The panel received 238 submissions of evidence from citizens and interested parties.
A topic which gave rise to significant concern was well integrity because of the possibility of methane emissions and the contamination of groundwater.
However, the Panel concluded that it is a relatively straightforward task to establish good regulatory practices, quality control, and monitoring to ensure that potential sites are geologically understood, that wells are properly installed, and that well abandonment is done according to regulatory requirements.
The scope of the Report included effects on groundwater - including both water quality and quantity issues; effects on surface water; impacts on land; management of additives to hydraulic fracturing fluids; waste management; site restoration; requirements for hydraulic fracturing design including chemicals used; and the engineered design, and financial security considerations that operators are required prior to conducting activity.
It found that in the case of hydraulic fracturing and its associated activities and technologies, scientific observations are lacking in many areas.
For example, there is no literature on methane gas toxicity from hydraulic fracturing because toxicologists consider the gas to be inert; there is no indication that it is a significant health hazard if methane is inhaled in small concentrations, therefore toxicologists do not study it.
In other domains, results may be lacking because of neglect or a lack of awareness, or simply because negative or positive effects may take decades to emerge and be measured.
The Report warns: “We need only reflect on the decades it took for the links between smoking and cancer to be accepted to understand the problem.
“Scientists try to fill gaps in knowledge with rigorous study and publications so that society can continue to progress in matters of health and general welfare, but these studies take time and resources.
“Therefore, we are not in a position today where we can declare that all risks associated with hydraulic fracturing and its associated activities are fully understood, still less, that they can be perfectly controlled.”
The study concluded with three main recommendations:
1. A significant period of learning and dialogue is now required at both provincial and community levels, and thus hydraulic fracturing for the purpose of unconventional gas and oil development should not proceed at the present time in Nova Scotia.
2. Independently conducted research of a scientific and public participatory nature is required to model economic, social, environmental, and community health impacts of all forms of energy production and use - including any prospect of unconventional gas and oil development in Nova Scotia - at both provincial and community levels.
3. Nova Scotia should design and recognise the test of a community permission to proceed before exploration occurs for the purpose of using hydraulic fracturing in the development of unconventional gas and oil resources.
And adds: “We strongly suggest that whatever time is needed for each of these steps should be taken, without any sense of deadline-setting or impatience by any actor.”
The Panel represented expertise in a broad ranges of disciplines: Aboriginal wisdom, economics, environmental geography, water science, environmental science, public health, social science, social ecology, petroleum geology, geoscience, law (including Aboriginal law), and knowledge of the natural gas industry. Six of the 11 panellists were academics).
The Report also makes more than 30 recommendations that should be applied if a fracking project was to proceed ranging mandatory health and environmental impact assessments, to risk reduction, use of benign fracturing fluids, traffic management plans, occupational standards, water safety plan, industry best practices, clean up regulations, and participation in benefits.
Prof Wheeler insisted the Report had integrity because all of the Expert Panel members were nominated by stakeholders, including the public, and a “CV’ test was applied against each in their category of expertise.
And the conclusions, he said, are transferable in a general sense.
He added: “Much of what we recommended was plain common sense, including the need to recognise a ‘community permission to proceed’ and the need to model all of the impacts, positive and negative, at a regional level.
“I cannot imagine any government, or indeed any industrial actor with any sense wishing to crash through a process like unconventional gas and oil development against the wishes of local people. It would be a recipe for conflict and economic uncertainty where no-one would win.
“Many of our specific recommendations related to the particular circumstances of the Province of Nova Scotia, but they were based on a thorough assessment of the technical risks and uncertainties in the emerging literature on hydraulic fracturing, as well as on current practice in North America.
“And so even the more specific recommendation probably have some benchmarking relevance for the UK and Europe in terms of the need for thorough prior assessments, monitoring, effective regulations, mitigation of social and environmental impacts and so on.
“I am sure that we have created a set of checkmarks which will be of interest to other jurisdictions considering this technology.”
He added: “We discussed at length the hard economic and scientific questions, and I believe we have brought some realism and objectivity to bear in many areas. But we also dealt with public perceptions and the challenge of making anything happen in a democracy where people do not trust public institutions or industry to do the right thing.
“Our process absolutely underscores the value and importance of stakeholder-inclusive independent reviews of contentious issues like hydraulic fracturing, and ongoing involvement of the public in the assessment and management of risks if the technology is to be applied.”