Independent fracking review: Some recommendations

Star forum — By Dennis Bruce

Published on August 21, 2014

Dear Editor: The provincial government recently announced that it will call an independent review to study “fracking” or hydraulic fracturing in the province.

This will replace the internal assessment that the province had set out to undertake last year.

The review that the province is about to embark upon is very critical to the future of the west coast and the entire province.

Establishing the right terms of reference for the review is important, as ultimately it will determine the success or failure of this new process.

I would propose the following advice to Minister Derrick Dalley as he and his staff set out to define the terms of reference:

‰    1. Make a commitment to industry that the province will take action based on the review findings and provide a definitive time frame in which the review will be complete. The offshore oil and gas industry has been extraordinarily successful in the province partly because the regulatory environment is well understood by industry globally. The industry now accounts for 30 per cent of the provincial economy and contributes more than half of total provincial tax revenues. The current uncertainty regarding fracking regulation can derail future private sector investment and economic development on the west coast, an area that badly needs economic stimulus from the private sector. We need to move swiftly to eliminate this uncertainty for industry.

‰    2. Clearly articulate up front the objective of the review. The study objective needs to be well defined in advance, and public and industry input to the objectives is recommended. I would propose, at a minimum, the following review objectives:

a. To summarize the evidence on the environmental, social and economic impacts of fracking based on the direct experience from other jurisdictions.

b. To assess to the degree feasible, based on the preponderance of the evidence, whether the potential economic benefits of fracking are sufficient to offset any potential risks.

c. To make recommendations for the regulations that should be put in place to attempt to appropriately mitigate, if feasible, any material environmental risks associated with fracking.

‰    3. Separate scientific evidence from public input. I would recommend the terms of reference for the review be split into two distinct elements run by two distinct panels: the scientific or technical panel and the public outreach panel.

a. The technical panel should review the technical scientific evidence, most of which should be already available from the numerous other technical reviews done by Canadian jurisdictions and other entities, such as Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering in the United Kingdom. The technical panel should further review additional original written and oral evidence by qualified local technical experts who have conducted relevant primary research. The technical panel’s role should be to weigh the scientific evidence and, as such, should not be required to weigh the opinions of the general populace. Having technical experts facilitate open public forums is not productive and could unduly influence and/or delay the technical review.

b. The public outreach panel should conduct several town hall sessions across province and allow all citizens to elaborate fully on their opinions and perceptions related to fracking. These sessions should be adequately long to ensure that all get their opportunity to state their positions. This should be augmented by formal scientific polling of households across the province to get an accurate sense of whether people feel fracking should be allowed, and why or why not. This data will be invaluable to provincial policy makers.

The data collected from both the technical panel and the public outreach panel should be made available to policy makers and the public so that both the scientific evidence and public opinion are considered when fracking policy and regulations are drafted.

I would encourage the province to take the time to establish a solid terms of reference for the review.

I remain hopeful that a proper review can be completed by the end of 2015 that will provide the province with the evidence it needs to make a definitive decision on fracking regulations.

Dennis Bruce is an economist who lives in Corner Brook.