O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad from mony a blunder free us.
Old Scotland’s bard, Bobby Burns, was commenting on the comic sight of a louse perched on a lady’s fine bonnet when he penned those famous lines in 1786.
But New Scotland’s energy minister, Andrew Younger, should also heed the ploughman poet’s wry warning about the benefit of seeing yourself from another’s perspective.
As his department fleshes out Bill 6, which prohibits, without yet defining, “high-volume hydraulic fracturing” in shale formations, Mr. Younger and his boss, Premier Stephen McNeil, should be concerned about how some very important “ithers” see the fracking ban and Nova Scotia.
First, there are outside energy investors upon whom we rely heavily to develop our resources. Many are concerned about the difficulty of ever lifting a shale fracking ban once it’s legislated. It’s an understandable view given the long history of the uranium moratorium in the province.
There’s also a swell of commentary in Western Canada slamming Nova Scotia’s fracking ban and New Brunswick’s promised one. In these circles, we’re seen as provinces absurdly shunning a technology and a resource that help fund our equalization payments — out of revenues Ottawa derives from the huge fracked gas industry in the West.
Mr. Younger told us Wednesday he’s frustrated with comments that “focus on what we aren’t doing as opposed to what we are.” He says the government is developing offshore and coal-bed gas resources. And it welcomes LNG plants and pipelines that are opposed on the West Coast.
He says he does “get” industry concern a ban will become permanent. But he argues industry also recognizes time and work are needed to develop the certainty of a “social licence” for fracking in a province unfamiliar with it. He says a ban is a necessary part of this process because denying fracking permits without a legislated prohibition could lead to legal challenges.
So is Bill 6 just a means of enforcing a fracking standstill while the province goes through the period of research and open-minded learning the Wheeler report (which didn’t support a moratorium) envisaged? We hope so. And we commend the work to assemble the best research on the province’s potential on-land hydrocarbon resources, including shale gas, to inform the public and to interest industry.
But there is a mixed message here. Although Mr. Younger says he welcomes industry partners in research, a ban doesn’t offer a reason to do that. And every time the government uses polling results to defend the ban, it makes Nova Scotians’ opposition to an unfamiliar process look firmer than it may be, or would be with better information.
Bill 6 itself is the barest-of-bones. The department will spend several months developing regulations that precisely define the type of fracking to be prohibited and exemptions allowed for research. There will be mandatory consultation with industry and 30 days for public comment.
We still think a ban is a mistake and fear damage has been done. But the bill does grant the minister power at any time to review the ban and reassess the net benefit of fracking on the basis of social, economic, health, technical and regulatory issues. So if the government wants to use this as a process to help Nova Scotians work out good regulations and a social licence for shale gas, it can do so. We think it should. That would go a long way toward making some important “ithers” see us in a better light, too.