The news of an independent external review of fracking is being welcomed by just about everyone.
The concern now is ensuring the work is influenced neither by government, nor the industry that stands to gain from the controversial processs should it be permitted.
Simon Jansen has chaired meetings of the Newfoundland and Labrador Fracking Awareness Network, the coalition of nearly 20 organizations and almost 200 people who share concerns about the hydraulic fracturing of underground rock to facilitate access to oil and gas resources. The network has been drawing attention to research that has shown fracking can potentially have negative impacts on human and environmental health, as well as jeopardize the viability of economic sectors such as the tourism and fishing industries.
The independent external review announced Monday by Natural Resources Minister Derrick Dalley during a visit to western Newfoundland, where fracking has been a bone of contention in recent times, is exactly what the network has been advocating for.
“That is really the only way the government can gain public trust,” Jansen said of a truly independent review.
Dalley’s department has already conducted its own internal review and plans to share those findings with the panel government will appoint to do the external review. That panel will consist of three to five people and Dalley said they will focus on human health, the environment and the economy in addition to the science involved with fracking.
Jansen said people don’t just want their concerns to be heard, they want them to be given their due weight in the review.
“I have never seen an environmental issue that has galvanized the conversation on the west coast like this one has,” said Jansen.
Dalley’s announcement comes in the midst of a byelection in St. George’s-Stephenville East, one of the areas where fracking could happen if government lifted its moratorium on the practice.
Bernice Hancock, who is running for the New Democratic Party in the byelection, said the timing of Dalley’s announcement is questionable and just a bid to garner votes for the governing Progressive Conservative’s candidate.
She said Premier Tom Marshall, the former natural resources minister, was “visibly upset and dismissive” of concerns raised by hundreds of people attending a meeting about fracking on the Port au Port Peninsula last fall.
“Where was all this about health and safety and putting people first last fall?” asked Hancock.
In a recent interview with The Western Star, Marshall said public objection to private sector development, including fracking, has stalled economic growth in the region. Hancock also noted how Marshall had said opposition to fracking by students and faculty at Grenfell Campus, Memorial University in Corner Brook was not based on a full appreciation of the science behind fracking.
“That does not sound like a party who will put the people and the environment first,” she said.
Dalley said there will be public consultations as part of the independent review. Like Jansen, Hancock said the public consultation process can’t be a mere formality that will be shelved by the panel.
“We don’t want consultations like we’ve seen in the past with people from big corporations coming and giving us spiels about how wonderful fracking is,” said Hancock.
Wally Childs is the candidate the Tories hope will reclaim the seat being left vacant by resigned cabinet minister Joan Shea. He said he never asked his party for a clarification of its stance on fracking, but was called off the campaign trail Monday to hear what Dalley had to announce.
He has had some discussions about fracking with voters during his campaign so far. Some support it, some don’t, he said.
The important thing, said Childs, is that government gets as much information that it can before it decides on a policy on fracking.
“If this is something that is going to endanger the environment or the health and safety and protection of our people, then it’s not something I can support,” said Childs.
Childs is from Lark Harbour in the Bay of Islands — another area targeted for potential fracking activity — and has been a teacher for 20 years in the district he now wants to represent.
“I don’t want to have to go back and hang my head in shame, thinking I made decisions that are going to hurt these young ones that I’m teaching,” he said.
The Western Star made attempts to speak with Scott Reid, the Liberal candidate in the St. George’s-Stephenville East byelection, but calls to the party were not returned as of press time Tuesday.