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EDITORIAL: Working the underground

The prospect of fracking in Nova Scotia could be on the back burner for a long, long time.

Hydraulic fracturing remains a controversial technology for shale gas extraction, one that at the moment is banned in the province for all intents and purposes. But there could be a window to revisit that ban, as hinted at this week by Premier Stephen McNeil.

Speaking to the Halifax Chamber of Commerce the premier said if a community can deliver the social licence on a fracking project, the province would be willing to discuss it with them.

It didnt take long for McNeil to indicate just how sensitive a topic this is. On Thursday when pressed on the status of the ban, he said his government has no intention of changing the current position of the province at this point.

That, in a nutshell, illustrates the tension surrounding the subject. A report recently released by the Energy Department, the Onshore Petroleum Atlas, estimates the potential of onshore gas in the province as being worth between US$20 billion and $60 billion. The bulk of that would be shale gas, which would require hydraulic fracturing.

There is certainly a contingent that asserts tapping into this, with the corresponding jobs and royalties, would substantially boost the economy of Nova Scotia.

But the process of fracking has received a fair bit of bad press over the years, with critics linking it to contamination of ground water in some areas where its been done. Doubtless the proponents of the industry will argue that such instances are rare. But still its a lingering concern thats hard to shake.

That was at the heart of the report on fracking done by a panel, led by David Wheeler, in 2014. The panel recommended that without further independent scientific study on the effects, and without the consent of the community, fracking should not be allowed.

The government passed legislation that same year banning the practice but – more indication of ambiguity – the law has never been proclaimed.

The provincial NDP, who say they are against use of the technology in Nova Scotia, make much of the apparent lack of commitment by the Liberals in regard to the ban. They also accuse the Conservatives of being eager to allow fracking. PC leadership hopeful John Lohr has, in fact, said the province should allow industry to go ahead with research, as recommended in the Wheeler report, rather than stick with an outright ban.

On this subject, Guysborough County council recently wrote to the Energy Department indicating an interest in gas extraction to help boost the economy in that area. McNeil, in reference to that correspondence, said a pitch from a municipal council doesnt necessarily reflect the wishes of the community.

No doubt there will be continuing interest and proposals, particularly with the existence of potentially wealthy deposits mapped out.

But its still pretty much a moot point. Given the worries still expressed about the technology, its hard to imagine getting the better part of any given community on board.

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