It’s an interesting decision — but far more interesting would have been to be a fly on the wall when the province’s cabinet met and decided to do it.
Monday, as the House of Assembly opened for the fall session, new Natural Resources Minister Derrick Dalley rose and essentially got to say the first word of the session for the government: “Today, I am announcing that our government will not be accepting applications for onshore and onshore to offshore petroleum exploration using hydraulic fracturing. This measure provides an opportunity for government to undertake a balanced review of regulations, rules and guidelines in other jurisdictions; to complete the technical work necessary to fully assess the geological impact in Western Newfoundland; and, following this process, to undertake public engagement to ensure that our residents have an opportunity to comment and are fully informed before any decision is made.” It was a sharp turn in a long debate, one that has been tilting for months in a completely different direction: when he was in the natural resources portfolio this year, Tom Marshall actually went west to tour fracking sites in western provinces, returning with the argument that he couldn’t really see much wrong with the process.
“They are not having any problems with it at all,” Marshall said after his tour. “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.”
Former environment minister Tom Hedderson seemed equally onside, suggesting that concerns about the process could be dealt with through the province’s existing environmental assessment legislation, and that the province has handled large projects before.
That barely slowed opposition to the process, which involves injecting high-pressure water and chemicals deep into the ground to fracture rock and allow hydrocarbons like oil and gas to escape.
Fracking is not popular in other places: there have been concerns about groundwater contamination with the fracking chemicals themselves, and in some cases, situations where highly fractured rock reservoirs leak hydrocarbons into the watertable as well. Here, though, it looked like the government was going to buck the growing opposition and allow companies to go through the environmental process needed to start the work.
Now, Internet bloggers like Ed Hollett at The Robert Bond Papers have pointed out that this apparent turnround is appearing right in the middle of a CRA polling period — and that’s pretty obviously the case, given the government’s sudden rush of good-news announcements, like an increase in minimum wage that won’t occur for a year, and new federal fisheries money that won’t show up for a minimum of two years. For this government, playing the polls while at the same time claiming polls don’t matter is a long-standing tradition.
Hollett also included a Tweet from Young Progressive Conservatives Newfoundland and Labrador that said, “We polled you on fracking and it was almost unanimous that more info was required before going (forward).”
That’s why listening in on that cabinet session would have been so interesting: after all, this is a government where a past minister of environment — that’s right, environment — has defended not moving forward with protecting a unique marine area because the area might at some time in the future be found to have petroleum potential. So, is fracking a bad idea, or is it just a case that the polling numbers have dipped so low that a government’s direction has to change for a little while?