Michael Jensen: Impacts of Fracking on the North Shore of NS

30 04 2014

Envisioning a Fracked Nova Scotia:

2018, 2020, 2024
Submission to the Wheeler Commission
Michael Jensen, michaeljonjensen@gmail.com, 1439 Loganville Road, Scotsburn, B0K 1R0

The goal of this submission is to clearly paint a relatively documented and referenced picture of what many Nova Scotians fear might result from allowing the energy industry to explore, frack, and extract methane and petrochemicals from its deep geological strata.

This is a speculative submission, and is therefore fiction. However, without thoughtful envisioning of likely futures, what’s the point of this Commission? This submission tries to extrapolate a future Nova Scotia based on the experiences of other locales both blessed and cursed with frackable layers of shale deep below them.

Vast geological, socio-cultural, and legal differences exist between the North Shore of Nova Scotia, and areas that have recently been dominated by shale energy extraction (notably the US states of Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Montana, South and North Dakota, Texas, Oklahoma, New York, and more). Yet what these areas have experienced, envisioned in our context, is very disquieting.

Currently, Nova Scotia’s North Shore is more economically dependent on tourism and ‘cottagers’ than much of rural Pennsylvania is; it has more small mixed family farms per square kilometer than Wyoming; it has far different water issues than Texas or Oklahoma; it has a different geology than rural New York. It has more Farmer’s Markets than Montana.

That said, lessons from the US states and elsewhere may be a strong base for extrapolation – and may be used to illuminate what might result from opening up the North Shore of Nova Scotia to exploration, hydraulic fracturing, and extraction of gas and oil, over the next decade.

This submission will try to constrain itself to documented evidence (from peer- reviewed scholarly studies, from respected news sources, and from published first- person accounts), but will also explore likely scenarios that may be specific primarily to the realities of the North Shore of Nova Scotia.

The next decade worldwide will be a transitional one: climate change will confront us ever more directly, stressed ecosystems and economies will challenge us, and technological developments will surprise us. The next decade could also, for the North Shore of Nova Scotia, lock in a toxic future. That’s the decade described below.

It is March 2018, along the Sunrise Trail (Highway 6) between Pictou and Amherst.

The exploratory wells of 2016 have led to a sprint to try to monetize the shale gas and oil opportunities a mile or so beneath Pictou and Colchester Counties. “Only” two hundred well pads with four wells each are initially permitted, and by 2017 pads begin to be cleared, and slurry ponds dug, and access roads opened. At an average of 160 affected acres per well pad, these two hundred pads affect 128,000 acres.(1)

By 2018, heavy vehicle traffic has exploded on Highway 6; each well requires thousands of heavy truck trips to bring heavy equipment and millions of gallons of water, for every fracked well. (1) On this two-lane highway, the ratio of industrial trucks to passenger vehicles is now 1 to 1. The Sunrise Trail is the coastal highway that connects to all the smaller roads inland, through hamlets past farms, to where shale gas drilling is taking place. All winter long, freeze/thaw “frost heaves” in the asphalt are crushed by water tanker trucks and pressure pumpers and pipe carriers, have turned long swathes of the road surfaces into rubble.

Legal wrangling over who will pay for repairs run hot and heavy, with energy companies, their contractors, their subcontractors, the county, and the province all working to avoid responsibility. Meanwhile, the roads are increasingly rough for the residents. Ambulances and other emergency vehicles are increasingly delayed. Traffic accidents, once rare, are increasing.(13)

Inland, over the tops of trees and hills, can be seen the flames of wells flaring off methane here and there – every few kilometers or so, where the wellpads are being developed.(8b) There are smells in the air that are unusual for the region: – invisible VOCs (8) (volatile organic compounds) of unknown and mostly unmeasured quantities; unburnt diesel from the exhausts of the trucks and the generators; odd wafts of offgassing from the settling ponds beside each wellpad. The noise of the trucks, and the burn-offs, and the generators, and the industrial activity are continuous, 24/7, every day, as materiel, fuel, water, roughnecks, and heavy equipment gets trucked to wellpad after wellpad.

Those constant trucks pass a changing landscape.

“For Sale” signs abound. The cottagers who once treasured their oceanfront bungalows can no longer find their quiet retreat by the ocean. The formerly-just- scraping-by family farmers are now even more uncertain of the future, especially as the risks of fracking become ever more apparent.

Even with rock-bottom real estate prices, there’s little interest from either Nova Scotians or from non-Nova Scotians. There’s too much uncertainty surrounding fracking. And besides, it’s really hard to get a bank loan to buy property around here

(2), what with the unknowns of water availability, ability for resale, and long-term viability. This is especially true when property values may be dropping 10% to 50% annually. (3, 4)

Who would want to invest in a farm which might discover that its water is undrinkable for humans, or cattle, or sheep, and could be toxic even as irrigation? Who but the desperate would want to invest in an oceanfront view, if the air and the water were likely poisonous, and industrial noise was a constant presence?

In 2018, the Farmers Markets of Tatamagouche, River John, and New Glasgow are struggling, as the otherwise-generic appeal of “local” produce is now outweighed by the fear of “locally toxic” produce, and fewer summer people are in the area. Few local primary producers – those who sell at the local markets – can find it cost- effective to sell directly, because of the local concerns. Some farmers are just quitting. As a consequence, food security for Nova Scotia (the ability of NS to feed itself) has decreased.

This regional reality is especially problematic for attracting young farmers to the region, and even any young entrepreneurs. The young couples who only a few years ago chose to raise their families on the North Shore, making the area one of the few growing rural communities, are looking elsewhere for the qualities that once drew them to the North Shore. And why should they move here rather than somewhere else, when invisible, untestable environmental toxins could damage their children’s endocrine systems? (6)

In the schools, teachers notice that more and more of the children have asthma, and many have ailments unusual for children, like severe nosebleeds, memory loss and joint pain.(14)

There’s a noticeable decrease in the influx of retirees and immigrants for whom the area was once so attractive. They too are concerned that even if their water tests okay today, it could come up contaminated tomorrow.

With property values plummeting, and in-migration drying up, where will the money come from, to underwrite infrastructure investments, educational opportunities, lighting and sidewalk clearing and firehalls and libraries?

For some property owners, however, of course, all is well. Rents are high, as new short-termers move into the region during the building boom. Anyone with a rooming house, or a property that can be turned into a short-term residence, can almost name their price for a room (at least for a year or two).

In Tatamagouche, and in Pugwash, and in Amherst, and in Pictou and New Glasgow, the bars are full. The short-time well workers brought in from Alberta and Wyoming and North Dakota, six months at a stretch, are enjoying their off-hours. Dangerous, hard, well-paid work means that days off are relished, and the desires of mostly

young men has created a booming market in many illicit recreations.(4) Rural policing, formerly a relatively quiet affair, has become much more expensive for everyone, and is a catch-up game(5). Tatamagouche’s RCMP office is stretched, as are the police departments in New Glasgow and others communities. Prostitution, drugs, and violence have yet to be reined in. In these sectors, the economy seems very strong.

Naturally, the resistance to shale gas development is also very strong, and growing. This resistance is also stretching the RCMP’s resources. Where local natural rivers and streams are being harvested by shale gas companies to extract the hundreds of thousands of liters of water needed per frack, there are also hikers who “monkey- wrench” the pipes, or try to block an access road, or disrupt or slow the system. Where machinery and hardware reside overnight, sugar cubes in gas tanks and sabotaged valves, wires, sensors, and systems ensure a slowdown in development, and an increase in demands by the energy companies for property protection.

A new kind of job market opens, for guards and for watchmen to patrol the temporary pipelines, equipment, and materiel. As a result, the Internet is outraged by video stories of innocent hikers and recreational skiers being challenged by these watchmen — thereby discouraging even that small tourist attraction.

The RCMP is asked to protect the capital investment of shale gas development, as well as being asked to protect the historic capital investment of the community itself from the development. This paradox will play out over and over, as the shale gas development continues. A general sense of distrust, rancor, and militarization grows. Perhaps the RCMP begins to put their newly-affordable camera drones to work, monitoring all pipelines and wellpads; perhaps several of those drones are taken out via shotgun skeet-shooting by activists; perhaps the locals feel compelled to demonstrate their resistance in ways private and public, with YouTubes leaking and celebrated worldwide (“Nova Scotian Pops Cyber-Snoop Drone”).

In general, an atmosphere of us-vs.-them, of outsider-vs.-local, of beset-vs.- profitting, of pro-vs.-con, has become endemic – whether rational or not. Community meetings are fraught, and become rapidly polarized, with shouting and hurt feelings. Conflict becomes a standard background soundtrack to every social event.

The few who are profiting in the short term from the hothouse growth must face conflict with others who are resisting that growth. These big stressors are increasingly difficult to ignore.

By 2020, many energy technologies will be maturing – solar and wind infrastructure are becoming routinized and cheaper, even as new battery technologies are

beginning to make the grid more robust, and a different energy attitude possible. Uncertainties about the long-term liabilities of fracking have made some energy investors skittish, since the “carbon bubble” is also a real worry.

With budgets so tight, there are only a few regulators available to check on hundreds of wells, and they can’t keep up. Reports of spills and companies dumping fracking waste along roads go uninvestigated. Residents’ complaints about air quality and health problems are generally ignored, or met with assurances that it’s just stress.

Meanwhile, as dissatisfaction grows, the shale gas opposition will do its own surveillance and archiving, using Facebook, Google, email, specialized websites, local meetings, and the good old telephone, Whenever there is a tailings-pond spill, or a fracking-truck-accident, or a newly flaming well, there will be a YouTube documenting it. When a contractor is found to be cutting corners, it will be documented.

Inexpensive (but not fully dependable) tests for VOCs, methane, and other airborne toxins can now be run by anyone – and will be, and then posted where activists can see the results. Co-op financed (and disputed by industry) water testing arrangements with independent labs will be routine and inexpensive. Local county and municipal councils will be pushed to respond to all local disruptions.

When a local river or stream or pond is sucked shallow, to provide the millions of litres of fresh water per frack, there will be a recording witness (drones, security, or no). When local-vs.-outsider traffic accidents occur, there will be a recording witness, commenting on where the fault lies. When leaks, spills, explosions, malfeasance and corruption, or any other black eyes occur, there will be a recording witness, able to broadcast their video, audio, or still images to everyone interested. Currently (in 2014), according to an election-cycle poll (9), two-thirds of Nova Scotians are already predisposed to oppose hydraulic fracturing. They’re a willing and receptive audience for this citizen journalism.

In light of the dramatic changes in real estate prices, property value reassessments are being demanded by residents, because resale prices are declining. Many mortgage holders find themselves “under water,” with a mortgage greater than the resale value of the property. Municipalities find themselves squeezed, as property tax revenues fall precipitously, and expenses required to manage the increase in new social stresses.

Of course, the gas company has provided money for several ball teams, and made donations to the local 4H club and hospital to illustrate their community spirit.

This ferment is potentially a strong foundation for dramatic political upheaval. If even a third of the disruptions described above come to pass, energy development

of Nova Scotia has the potential to become a single-issue motivator for upending the status quo.

Particularly because subsurface mineral rights legally belong to the Crown, those living on the surface may resent having their environment damaged to profit a distant corporation who may pay a royalty to a distant provincial government, but whose impact can be felt (even seen and smelled) locally every day.

By 2024, the energy ecosystem will have become unavoidably transformed from

2014’s – by the previous decade’s response to climate change and rising energy costs. As photovoltaics have developed, and there have been improvements in grid battery economics, wind power efficiencies, and overall EnergySmartness, the need for fossil fuel to provide local energy has dramatically declined. With solar at half the cost per watt as oil, coal, and cheaper than natural gas, carbon-emitting energy is now clearly doomed as a business, over coming decades.

Photovoltaic power is now cheaper than coal, and has an ROI of three to five years. While not appropriate for all energy needs yet, the worldwide oil and gas sector remains chaotic, and inexorably pointed downward.

This evolution is helped along by the widespread recognition (by populace and politics, as well as by the increasingly vocal scientific community) that industrial climate disruption must be slowed and quickly reversed, in order to try to save contemporary civilization. From 2018 through 2024, carbon taxes and fee schedules are continuously adjusted to accommodate this new reality. But more significantly, the economics of difficulty, risk, and capital requirements drive the new reality: it simply costs more to drill a pipe a mile down than it costs to build a mile of solar panels.

This energy-production threshold is good for the climate, and for humanity’s survival, but it’s no great shakes for Nova Scotia’s northern half. The landscape remains dotted by long-tail-of-the-decline-curve, low-royalty-producing well pads, many now four to six years old. Every month or two, another is shown to be leaking, but nobody seems in a hurry to shut them down. The well-meaning statutes passed earlier in 2015 and 2016 (designed to “hold the energy companies accountable” by requiring that “once a well is closed, testing and remediation shall be initiated) means the energy companies delay designating any well as “non-producing” until it is absolutely bone dry… which can be, functionally, until the next century.

Property values in the region remain low, since the rate of “well communication” has been documented at a rate sufficient to scare potential purchasers even from

property with currently undamaged wellwater. Many mortgage holders have simply walked away, leaving local economies in trouble.

The “energy building boom” jobs are gone. The “energy service boom” jobs are gone. The “energy transportation boom” jobs are gone. The “energy protection boom” jobs are gone. Today in 2024, in the wellhead business, the name of the game is “maintenance” – and it’s not a “boom.” Maintenance jobs are one in ten, one in twenty compared to the boomtimes.(10, 11)

The double-normal rental prices (and local income) of 2018 and 2020 have plummeted to a quarter normal in 2024. Housing supply far outstrips demand, and the community infrastructure suffers because of it.

Tourism is now virtually nonexistent along the Sunrise Trail, except as a pass- through drive to Cape Breton, which was fortunate to have missed the fracking boomlet.

Cape Breton now (in 2024) can boast a clean, untrammeled, nontoxic coastal experience, something pretty rare in the world. The retiree-cottager community has moved from the now semi-toxic North Shore of Nova Scotia to Cape Breton’s more pristine coast, which without shale energy potential during that peculiar period in energy history, missed its destructive power.

The North Shore of Nova Scotia is left, in 2024 (and for decades after that), deeply and permanently scarred by the last grabs by the petro-economy of deep drilling and fracking for oil and gas. Nova Scotia’s North Shore must cope for generations with the long-term consequences of a brief boom of local jobs – jobs that resulted in distant corporate profits, and in a few token royalties, but no real development of sustainable regional strength.

And it is not just the economy that remains scarred; the social fabric and the ecosystem has also been fragmented.

The North Shore’s former culture of progressive pragmatism is, in 2024, unrecoverable. Its former population has been halved as many moved away; its former economy has been first doubled, then decimated by a rural boom-bust cycle followed by a toxic legacy.

The legacy of a decade-old conflict, between “collaborators” and “econazis,” is not resolved even though it’s now clear that the “no-fracking” contingent was right in their predictions. The legacy of division makes it difficult for the communities to pull together and try to rebuild.

With little reason for optimism, it’s hard not to be pessimistic about the future, here on the North Shore of Nova Scotia in 2024. For the communities from Amherst to Pictou, it looks like nothing but hard times ahead.

This timeline is, of course, a bad-case scenario.

But it’s far from the worst-case scenario, by any means. The above was extrapolated from realities already felt elsewhere that shale gas is being developed, using conservative numbers for water use, heavy industrial traffic, offgassing and VOCs, methane flaring, property values, and much more.

How likely is the rest? Technologically, the predictions about solar, wind, battery, and grid developments are probably conservative too. Amazing engineering feats in materials science are unfolding, which could revolutionize energy storage, or energy production, or energy harvesting – any of which could produce profound effects on the status quo, in even a three-year period.

Hydraulic fracturing to produce shale gas (or other petrochemicals) is a high- technology extension of the old energy regime.

In the beginning of that regime, energy exploded from the ground at the top of an oil derrick, spraying its workers with black wealth. At the end of the regime, in a reversal, energy had to be exploded from mile-deep shale by fracking the rock with pressure and sand. We are at the end of an era, and at the cusp of a new one.

How we decide to move on fracking will determine the future viability of the North Shore of Nova Scotia (and many other areas of the province as well): will we be suspiciously toxic in 2024, or will we be a clean, sustainable, desirable destination?

If hydraulic fracturing is allowed in Nova Scotia in 2014-2018, I fear that the toxic scenario, especially in regards the social and cultural conflicts, is all too likely.

It is a future few of us who live along the beautiful North Shore want to see, in 2014.

We can do better: we can develop regional energy options; can develop regional energy regimes; can develop energy savings plans; can define job goals and energy assistance; and much more.

The North Shore of Nova Scotia can develop a better ten-year plan than “let outside companies dictate our future.”

Were we asked to develop a “success plan” for the next decade of the region’s social, cultural, and economic development, the North Shore’s population would almost certainly not choose to have fracking be part of its future (in fact, the population wants to ensure that hydrofracturing is not a part of its future, at about a 2/3 to 1/3 ratio, in late 2013[12]).

The North Shore should develop a “success plan” for the next decade, of course, but shale gas development should have no part of it. The risks far outweigh the paltry and temporary rewards; the potential benefits are transitory and fraught with long- term side-effects; the infrastructural tensions are virtually insurmountable; the economic impacts are profoundly disruptive; the sociocultural stresses are probably catastrophic.

Having written and rewritten this multiple times (and edited out a great deal of detail), I’m even more convinced that the fracking conflict embodies an inflection point – a “Y” in the road – which will determine the future of the region.

My deepest hope is that the Wheeler Commission will function as an independent voice for sanity, and recommend that Nova Scotia have no part in a dying, defunct industry’s last toxic gasps. Instead, let it encourage a rethinking of Nova Scotia in light of a dramatically evolving world.



1. “Revised SGEIS 2011” (New York State), Chapter 6


Context for above at http://www.dec.ny.gov/energy/75370.html 2. “Fracking leaves property values tapped out”


3. U.S. Congressman Jared Polis’s blog (D-Colorado), “Fracking Can Happen to Any of Us”


4. “As Oil Floods Plains Towns, Crime Pours In”


5. “Boomtown Policing: Responding to the Dark Side of Resource Development”

http://www.academia.edu/1115257/Boomtown_Policing_Responding_to_the_dark_side_of_resource_developm ent

6. Council of Canadians, “Myths vs. Realities about Fracking”

http://www.canadians.org/sites/default/files/publications/fracking%20myths%20and%20facts%20- %20Feb%202012.pdf

7. “How Fracking Destroys the American Dream”


8. “Harmful Air Pollutants Build Up Near Oil And Gas Fields” http://cen.acs.org/articles/92/web/2014/03/Harmful-Air-Pollutants-Build-Near.html, Chemical and Engineering News, Mar 25, 2014

8b. “In North Dakota, Flames of Wasted Natural Gas Light the Prairie”

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/27/business/energy-environment/in-north-dakota-wasted-natural-gas- flickers-against-the-sky.html?ref=northdakota

9. “Nova Scotians overwhelmingly support continued ban on fracking”


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10. “Energy Boomtowns & Natural Gas: Implications for Marcellus Shale Local Governments & Rural Communities” http://energy.wilkes.edu/PDFFiles/Issues/Energy%20Boomtowns%20and%20Natural%20Gas.pdf

11. “The Economic Consequences of Marcellus Shale Gas Extraction: Key Issues
A Research Project sponsored by the Cornell University Department of City & Regional Planning.” Cardi Reports, Sept. 2011

12. “Nova Scotia Public Opinion – Fracking Moratorium, Oct. 2013
13. Local Experiences Related to the Marcellus Shale Industry, Staci Covey, 2011 presentation:


14. Gas Patch Roulette: How Shale Gas Development Risks Public Health in Pennsylvania. October 2012 http://www.earthworksaction.org/files/publications/Health-Report-Full-FINAL-sm.pdf




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