Never underestimate the power of a ministerial tour. Recently, Natural Resources Minister Tom Marshall went to Saskatchewan on a road trip to help him make a decision on whether to allow hydraulic fracturing — also known as fracking — at oil drilling sites on the west coast of this province.
When Marshall came back, he said he had a remarkably different view of the process.
“They are not having any problems with it at all,” he said. “I was surprised because I was looking at it negatively because all the information that I’ve been getting it’s been very negative. …They haven’t had any water contamination. They haven’t had any problems with water volume. They haven’t had livestock dying. They haven’t had earthquakes.”
It was, he said, eye-opening, and proof of the value of personal experience.
“Get as much information as you can. Don’t base your decisions on one person or one set of facts that you see. Don’t base it on TV or movies. Get the facts,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to do.”
It sounds like a good idea. Here’s Marshall again: “I’ve been on the Internet checking out the things people are worried about and I went to Saskatchewan with my list.”
Marshall also told CBC News that he was surprised by the reaction his tour was getting.
“I go to Saskatchewan — it’s my first place — I just go one place and people are all accusing me of not being objective and not being independent,” Marshall said to CBC. “You know, it’s very emotional, and what I’m trying to do right now is that we’re looking at regulations everywhere else in the world, and we’re looking at the science, we’re looking at scientific studies.”
He said he now plans further tours, including trips to Ohio and Texas.
But stop and think about this for a moment. What are these trips — presumably at taxpayers’ expense, because if oil companies were paying, that would be truly frightening — actually supposed to achieve? Are they in some way supposed to replace informed analysis of whether fracking should go ahead on this province’s west coast?
A provincial cabinet minister, able to call on a skilled and experienced staff, wouldn’t ignore his in-house expertise and simply make a decision based on his own impressions from a set of road trips and a smattering of Internet searches, would he?
The simple answer to that is yes, tours have occasionally overridden any other review.
For the best example, you have to head back to 1987, then-premier Brian Peckford and the Sprung greenhouse project.
Peckford toured the facility and was extremely taken with the venture. Experienced civil servants toured it and were decidedly not impressed.
The proof of any pudding is in the eating, and taxpayers in this province ate heartily of the multimillion-
dollar losses, rather than of cheap produce. The operation failed — and it failed because of the exact problems that provincial employee Ross Traverse had outlined in his original report on whether the province should get involved in the venture. That report was both discounted and hidden from the public by the government.
The bottom line? Personal tours by ministers can help gain information, but they can also be far more persuasive than facts and informed analysis. Taking snaps of oilfield operations should be only a tiny part of the total review — and it should be recognized for the limited objective value it actually has.