April 17, 2014
Dr. Rod Bantjes
Professor of Sociology,
St. Francis Xavier University,
Hydraulic Fracturing Independent Review and Public Consultation,
Cape Breton University,
Dear Review Team:
I am writing to encourage the Committee to recommend extending Nova Scotia’s moratorium on hydraulic fracturing. I do not envy the Committee its task. Despite some herculean efforts in that direction (see for example Epstein,. et.al., 2011), there is still no objective way of doing a cost-benefit analysis of fossil fuel development even taking into account environmental, and health-based “externalities” with metrics like the “social cost of carbon.” Inevitably one ends up weighing ethical values and adjudicating between different social interests (purported benefits and harms are never equally distributed – some enjoy more benefits, others more harms) (Pavone, Goven, & Guarino, 2011). Even apparently technical questions, such as how likely drill casings are to leak, have their often overlooked social and political dimensions. Engineers and policy analysts tend to look at procedural and regulatory “best practice.” (e.g. Precht & Dempster, 2012) This is always reassuring. Social scientists are more interested in “typical use” (Pavone, Goven, & Guarino, 2011). This includes the extent to which ideal procedure is actually adhered to in the field under time pressures or financial exigencies (a concern with shale gas when the price of natural gas is low). Typical use is also affected by the capacity of regulatory agencies to monitor and enforce, regardless of the quality of the regulations. Fiscal restraint and deregulationist ideology continue to get in the way of effective environmental monitoring and enforcement in Canada (see for example Girard, Day & Snider. 2010).
The committee will no doubt hear many concerns about risks to the local environment and human health. Important as these are, I want instead to speak of other harms – one overwhelmingly obvious but about which Canadian policy makers are often eerily silent (see Young, & Coutinho. 2013), the other subtle and rarely noted. I have been teaching an environmental social sciences course since the early 1990s. The evidence available in the late 1980s was sufficient to warrant strong governmental action to limit greenhouse gasses (GHGs). I have watched the evidence mount year by year, and the IPCC (Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change) warnings become clearer, more dire and more insistent, while political and corporate leaders have failed to act, indeed have overseen policies that have ensured that the emissions and atmospheric concentrations of GHGs have only increased.
At the same time I have watched young people come to know these facts. In the 1990s they could still get inspired about the idea of doing something to prevent climate change from occurring. That optimism was increasingly tempered by a sense of confusion and disappointment that their own leaders seemed bent on frustrating any positive action. At Copenhagen in 2009 it became clear that world leaders had given up on the idea of sustainability, that is the idea that we could meet “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (Bruntland, 1987) Climate change was well underway and we had no concrete plan to limit warming to below the dangerous level of +2° C. In other words we were now committed to bequeathing a severely compromised world to future generations. Student optimism is harder to find. And young people need some hope in order to feel effective, and indeed to learn about what otherwise becomes an issue too emotionally difficult to face honestly (Norgaard, 2011). We talk in the class about positive action at the sub-national level on the part of municipalities, (US) states and provinces towards energy efficiency, greening cities and shifting to low-carbon energy sources. Some of this “good news” comes from Nova Scotia. We talk about local community action and social movements. Students find the 350.org campaign of divestment from fossil fuel companies particularly inspiring. The campaign’s premise, based on a rough calculation of the remaining atmospheric “carbon budget” is that most of the known fossil fuel reserves will have to remain in the ground (Hansen et. al., 2013). Divestment is gaining momentum, with figures like the head of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim and Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) voicing support.
Natural gas is often touted as a “transition” fuel. Perhaps Nova Scotia reserves might play this role when we are actually in transition to a low-carbon energy system. In the meantime we should be heeding the urgent calls to action that have accompanied the most recent IPCC report (IPCC, 2014). In the words of IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri, “the high-speed mitigation train needs to leave the station very soon and all of global society needs to get on board” (Hickman, 2014). While natural gas from hydraulic fracturing is “cleaner” than oil or gas when burned, it still produces CO2. However the production of shale gas is also a source of the more potent greenhouse gas, methane. Recent studies have suggested that “fugitive emissions” of methane could render the overall GHG emissions from shale gas comparable to those of the “dirtiest” fossil fuels (Brandt et.al. 2014; Karion et.al. 2013). The recent IPCC report has revised the warming potential of methane up to 34 times that of CO2 over a 100 year period from the previous estimate of 25 (IPCC, 2014). Increasing Nova Scotia’s, and Canada’s contribution to global GHG emissions and thereby exacerbating rather than mitigating the effects of climate change is the overwhelmingly obvious harm of proceeding with hydraulic fracturing in Nova Scotia. The subtle harm of relentlessly pursuing fossil fuel-dependent energy development is that young people feel deeply betrayed by our generation, and lose their faith in the possibility of rational action towards making their world a better place.
Brandt, A. R., et.al. 2014. “Methane Leaks from North American Natural Gas Systems.” Science 343(6172):733-35.
Bruntland, G. 1987. Our Common Future. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Epstein, Paul R. et.al. 2011. “Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal.” Annals of The New York Academy Of Sciences 1219(73–98).
Girard, April L, Suzanne Day, and Laureen Snider. 2010. “Tracking Environmental Crime through CEPA: Canada’s Environment Cops Or Industry’s Best Friend?” Canadian Journal of Sociology 35(2):219-41.
Hansen J, Kharecha P, Sato M, Masson-Delmotte V, Ackerman F, et al. . 2013. “Assessing ‘Dangerous Climate Change’: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature.” PLoS ONE 8(12):e81648.
Hickman, Leo. 2014. “IPCC report: the scientists have done their bit, now it is up to us.” in The Guardian.
IPCC. 2014. Fifth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2013. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Karion, Anna, et.al. 2013. “Methane emissions estimate from airborne measurements over a western United States natural gas field.” Geophysical Research Letters 40(16):4393–97.
Murphy, Raymond; Murphy, Maya. 2012. “The Tragedy of the Atmospheric Commons: Discounting Future Costs and Risks in Pursuit of Immediate Fossil-Fuel Benefits.” The Canadian Review of Sociology 49(3):247-70.
Norgaard, Kari Marie. 2011. Living in denial: climate change, emotions, and everyday life. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Pavone, Vincenzo, Joanna Goven, Riccardo Guarino. 2011. “From risk assessment to in-context trajectory evaluation - GMOs and their social implications.” Environmental Sciences Europe 23(3):1-12.
Young, Nathan, and Aline Coutinho. 2013. “Government, Anti-Reflexivity, and the Construction of Public Ignorance about Climate Change: Australia and Canada Compared.” Global Environmental Politics 13(2):89-108.