The man who pioneered hydraulic fracturing in Nova Scotia says he doesn't expect the province to lift a two-year moratorium on the contentious practice, mainly because the government is afraid of upsetting a vocal but misinformed minority.
Peter Hill, chairman of Denver-based Triangle Petroleum, says the industry could spur Nova Scotia's stalled economy and reduce its reliance on polluting, coal-fired plants, but he believes fear-mongering by outspoken critics has spooked the province's politicians.
"There's a level of emotion that is out there that is very difficult to dampen down and politicians will respond to that," he said in an interview from Houston.
"The politicians will be free to respond to the vociferous minority. ... I don't think they want to solve this thing right now. It's too difficult and politically charged."
'There's a level of emotion that is out there that is very difficult to dampen down.' - Peter Hill
Triangle Petroleum drilled several test wells in central Nova Scotia in 2007 and 2008, but only three involved hydraulic fracturing, a process that forces pressurized water and chemicals into layers of rock to release trapped oil and natural gas.
The wells were the first and only ones to be fracked in the province. They failed to produce any commercial quantities of gas, and the company is still trying to get rid of two holding ponds containing 30 million litres of fracking wastewater.
Later this month, an expert panel in Nova Scotia is expected to release a final report on fracking, and the provincial government has promised to render a quick decision on whether to lift the moratorium that started in 2012.
The head of the panel, Cape Breton University president David Wheeler, has already said the province should not proceed with fracking until a broader public discussion is held and more studies are completed.
Fracking report points to uncertainty
Hill says he's been impressed by the 10 discussion papers produced by the panel, but he adds that it appears Wheeler has been cowed by hundreds of angry citizens who showed up at a series of public meetings last month.
"I get very disappointed when I hear it's got to be a longer period [of discussion] when under everyone's feet sits a lot of gas that may be able to be pulled out of the ground in a sustainable, commercial and environmentally safe fashion," Hill says.
Barb Harris, a spokeswoman for the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia, attended four of the public meetings, all of which drew big crowds.
"It was overwhelmingly people who were opposed, and a few people who had come to learn and one person at each meeting who was in favour of fracking," said Harris, an environmental health researcher.
The province's energy minister, Andrew Younger, has said he's worried anxiety over his pending decision is "tearing communities apart."
Ken Summers, a member of the Nova Scotia Fracking Resource and Action Coalition, says the meetings may have had an impact on Wheeler's thinking, but Summers believes the real turning point came in April when an independent group of leading Canadian scientists released a report on fracking.
The report, produced by the Council of Canadian Academies, concluded that even though fracking could produce big economic benefits across Canada, there is significant uncertainty on the risks to the environment and human health.
Summers says the Nova Scotia government wants to avoid repeating the mistakes made in New Brunswick, where the provincial government has not only endorsed hydraulic fracturing but has made the issue a main plank in its bid for re-election on Sept. 22.
The New Brunswick government's stand has prompted numerous public protests, including a violent demonstration last October near Rexton in which a half-dozen police cars were burned and 40 anti-fracking protesters were arrested.
"They made a miscalculation," says Summers, who lives in Minasville, N.S., not far from Triangle Petroleum's wells.
"They thought they could ease people into this and it's not working. ... You have a government that went ahead and didn't think it would be as politically risky as it turned out to be."