Concerns abound at fracking town hall in St. John’s

The takeaway from a public discussion on fracking Tuesday evening in St. John’s? There are a lot of questions that need answering before people welcome the controversial method of fossil fuel extraction into the province.

Dozens of people turned out Tuesday evening at the Elks Lodge in St. John’s for a town hall on fracking hosted by NDP environment critic and St. John’s East MHA George Murphy.

During the two-hour public discussion people expressed concerns about the prospect of the fossil fuel industry using the controversial method of oil and gas extraction in the province. The provincial government recently appointed a five-member panel to review the fracking process and to hear the public’s concerns before preparing a final report advising the minister of natural resources no later than October 2015.

“If you think about things that have been happening in this province as of late, be that [anything from] draining lakes in Labrador to reach the resources underneath a pond, to the use of chemicals on our roadways used for roadside clearing, to fracking itself and other sources of extraction,” Murphy said Tuesday evening, “I think we’ve got to ask ourselves some questions, and it makes one wonder exactly where we’re going when it comes to our environment and our government’s stance with our environment and what they’re doing to protect the environment for us.”

Among the concerns people raised with fracking are the issues of groundwater contamination, air pollution and other environmental and public health risks, fracking’s potential to induce earthquakes, it’s contribution to climate change through fugitive emissions and methane leakage from orphaned wells, and the low number of jobs the industry creates relative to other industries that carry less risk.

Former City of St. John’s councillor Sheilagh O’Leary, whose family hails from the west coast, suggested the contradiction between the need for jobs and the need to protect the environment could be addressed by looking at other, less destructive industries.

“Most people I talk to are not interested in seeing fracking there,” she said. “They see that the possibility of environmental damage is huge, but when you’re talking about people who are desperately looking for work and looking for financial solutions, we know the history of this place. So I think that with the ‘nay’ let’s bring in the ‘yay’ and talk about even the smaller industries that could help lessen the economic depression that’s happening. That should be, ideally, the responsibility of our government, but barring that we obviously have to put it back in the hands of the people.”

 It’s [us] taking the risk [and] they are gambling, so if they win they get the profit, if they lose, we pay.”  – Piotr Trela, biologist

Biologist Piotr Trela raised concern over the government’s relationship with industry and the fact that the companies who have so far expressed interest in fracking on the Island’s west coast have been junior explorers who may not be in a financial position to mitigate the effects of an oil spill or other environmental disaster.

“There’s always this mentality—especially if it’s this incestuous relationship with the industry, this revolving door—that you always think about the best case scenario, you don’t think about the worst case scenario. And especially you don’t think about the unknowns which can have huge costs but…we just disregard it,” he said.

On the possibility of oil spills, Trela said the Deep Water Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was by the hand of oil giant British Petroleum, “so they had a huge budget and they could pay billions of dollars in cleanup.

“If you have a small operator they just go bankrupt and we are stuck with the bill. It’s [us] taking the risk [and] they are gambling, so if they win they get the profit, if they lose, we pay.”

Gerard Curtis, a professor at Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook and former oil and gas industry worker, has been active in the anti-fracking movement on the west coast and was in attendance Tuesday evening.

“I went to the first talking circle when we first started to discuss fracking, and about a third to half of the 14 people there were youth,” he told the audience, recalling the beginning of the anti-fracking movement on the west coast, which ultimately forced the provincial government to conduct the external review.

“I then went to the Kippens meeting — 200 people, families. Jessica Ernst came out — 400 people, families and youth. I was just at the last talking circle [and] we had to move from room to room to room, and I would say about a third to half again were youth. And they were some of the most earnest speakers, they were some of the most eloquent speakers, they were some of the most concerned environmentalists I’ve seen; they weren’t there for jobs, they knew the future, they know what they’re facing.”

In a recent interview with The Independent Newfoundland and Labrador fracking review panel Chair Ray Gosine said the five panel members will be meeting for the first time in December to discuss plans for the review process.

Among the many concerns raised Tuesday, however, were the integrity of the review panel and process. But some in attendance expressed optimism the government and panel would listen to their concerns and ensure both the panel and process were fair before proceeding.

Murphy said he would include all of the concerns raised in a report he plans to file with the review panel once the input gathering process begins.

“We need women on the panel. There are energy alternatives. We need infrastructure, there are questions about infrastructure,” he said. “And I guess in summation, until we can actually deal with what’s going to happen with our water, this should not happen. We’re also questioning the panel credentials.”

He also stressed the importance of getting involved in the process, since future generations of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians will live with any consequences of the decision.

“This issue is about you, it’s about the province, it’s about what’s going to be happening to the province, potentially in the future, if you don’t use your voice. You need to use it, you need to get together, you need to unite, and you need to let government know how you feel about this issue, pro or con.”

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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