Hydraulic fracturing should not proceed in Nova Scotia until a broader public discussion is held and more research is completed, says the head of an expert panel reviewing the industry's potential in the province.
David Wheeler, president of Cape Breton University, said Friday the province needs more time to get up to speed with the rapidly expanding unconventional oil and gas industry.
"We need more research in a couple of particular areas before anyone could take a view on whether this is a good or a bad idea in any part of the province," Wheeler said in an interview.
"We are also saying that we need a period of learning and dialogue, hopefully informed by the report that we're about to launch."
Nova Scotia imposed a two-year moratorium on fracking in 2012 as public concern grew over the potential for high-volume fracking to contaminate groundwater and foul the air — concerns the industry says are unfounded.
The province's former NDP government imposed the moratorium in the shadow of political strife in New Brunswick, where groups opposed to fracking have blocked roads and staged large demonstrations.
The New Democrats committed to setting up an independent review panel in August 2013, two months before they were swept from power by the Liberals.
Lively public meetings
The panel is expected to release a final report with recommendations next month.
Wheeler's comments Friday, which stunned some environmentalists, came after a series of stormy public meetings attracted more than 1,000 people, most of them opposed to fracking.
"It got lively at times," Wheeler said. "Cleary, the vast majority who attended the meetings, probably 90 per cent plus, would be against it."
Jennifer West, spokeswoman for the Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre, said it appears the meetings left a big impression on Wheeler.
"He was not prepared for how vehemently opposed the communities would be to fracking," said West. "In Tatamagouche, people stood up and yelled in his face. ... It's caused him to think a little more differently about it."
West said Wheeler's statements Friday are not reflected in the 10 discussion papers the panel has released in the past two months, suggesting that most of them paint a much rosier picture of the industry.
Still, West said even if the panel isn't moved by the public outrage at the meetings, the provincial government is sure to sit up and take notice.
Energy Minister Andrew Younger said he expected opponents to make the most noise at the meetings, but he also said he's concerned that the prolonged debate over the issue is creating a public backlash.
"It's become emotionally charged because of some of the stuff that has happened in the States and New Brunswick," he said in an interview.
"What I've learned from the New Brunswick model and from the history here is that I have a responsibility to show people we are listening to them. ... I'm concerned about how this issue is tearing certain communities apart."
Wheeler stressed the panel will not advise the government on what to do about the moratorium, saying that is a political decision.
However, he said if the government lifts the moratorium while at the same time agreeing to conduct more research and public talks, "that would not be consistent" with what he has in mind.
Wheeler went further, suggesting that no seismic testing or exploratory drilling should be allowed without the consent of surrounding communities.
"And we're saying communities are not in a position to give permission to proceed because there's not enough knowledge," he said. "We're a long way away from that."
An industry spokesman said Wheeler's call for a go-slow approach reflects the fact that Nova Scotia has virtually no experience with hydraulic fracturing.
"The citizens of Nova Scotia are learning so much through this process that [Wheeler] must have felt it's going to take longer to go through that process," said Dan Allan, executive vice-president of the Calgary-based Canadian Society of Unconventional Resources.
Allan said the province should take its time, but he warned that the 10-year moratorium some environmental groups are looking for would be overkill.
"If this is the position [of the province] 10 years from now, I'd say they are probably not really listening to the facts."