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An oilsands facility is seen from a helicopter near Fort McMurray, Alta., in 2012. Dan Leger says that as we Nova Scotians turn up our noses at oil and gas development, other parts of Canada that produce energy will accuse us of being freeloaders. (JEFF MCINTOSH / CP)
Maybe the Stephen McNeil government’s plan to outlaw high volume hydro-fracking for shale gas should have been expected as the path of least resistance for a lightly tested cabinet with an aversion to controversy.
With public opinion mixed, the Liberals opted for safety in one of those rare cases when an environmental issue went political.
This example of government by wind vane avoids domestic problems for the Liberals. With the Pictou pulp mill stinking up provincial politics, they sought cover.
Opponents won the heated but narrow debate over fracking by arguing that the practice should be banned until it can be proven to be safe.
Yet if anything is certain about fracking for shale gas, it’s that it will never be proven completely safe to the satisfaction of everyone. Minds are made up.
Even if conditions or technology change, it’s hard to see how a consensus could ever be reached on how much, if any, risk is acceptable.
Yes, there are health and environmental issues with some forms of fracking. The continental shale gas boom has led to many instances of water and air contamination.
It is also true that thousands of wells have been drilled without known damage to local environments.
Significantly, the province’s panel on fracking did not recommend a legislated ban but made the sensible recommendation to hold off for now, while actively researching the best course to take.
Energy Minister Andrew Younger didn’t bother with that. Rather than face a true debate with potential votes on the line — also known as showing political courage — the Liberals just said no.
Who needs a reasoned policy when you can choose a quick-fix response in the fine tradition of Bluenose politics?
In 2006, the Tories freaked out about rising gasoline prices and imposed “price regulation” that fails to control prices while boosting administrative costs.
Or 2012, when the NDP folded in a wage dispute with public service unions, a lack of fortitude for which taxpayers are still paying. Finance Minister Graham Steele resigned over that one.
And what was the rush to write a law? It’s not like companies were lining up to punch holes in our scenic share of Earth’s crust.
With the shale gas decision behind them, the Liberals must feel they have dodged a bullet. But you have to wonder if they have avoided one hazard just to step into another.
That’s because the tradeoff for having no problem from fracking is no exploration, no investment, no royalties, no taxes and no jobs.
The Liberals must know that sends a message to the rest of Canada: that we’re OK with someone else paying some of our bills while we enjoy our lifestyle choices.
Exactly one dollar in three of Nova Scotia’s provincial budget comes from equalization and similar federal transfers. Some of that $3 billion comes from places like Alberta and Saskatchewan where shale gas is a revenue-producing, job-creating industry.
So some people might perceive Nova Scotia’s message as it’s OK for Alberta and Saskatchewan to drill and pump while we turn up our noses. We’ll just take a slice for ourselves via federal transfers.
Perhaps the Liberals aren’t aware how unpopular equalization has become in the richer provinces. Those provinces tend to elect Conservatives, who are basing their re-election bid on balanced budgets and tax cuts.
Playing tough with the provinces only bolsters Stephen Harper’s appeal among core Tory supporters, many of whom reside in places where the drill bits never stop turning.
After Younger’s announcement, federal Finance Minister Joe Oliver pointed out that “there are economic consequences” to such decisions. His comment sounded a lot like a shot across the bows to the McNeil government.
Maybe Nova Scotia isn’t ready for shale gas in 2014. But McNeil and the Liberals better have an answer for other Canadians when they ask how we plan to start paying the bills out of our own resources and not theirs.