Wheeler's fracking report is good news for Liberals

If I were a Liberal, columnist Graham Steele says, I would be very happy with the Wheeler panel’s report on the prospects for hydraulic fracturing in Nova Scotia.

Graham Steele argues McNeil government will happily accept all recommendations

A worker wears a helmet decorated with stickers during a hydraulic fracturing operation at a gas well near Mead, Colo. The head of an expert panel reviewing the industry's potential in Nova Scotia says hydraulic fracturing should not proceed until more research is complete. (The Associated Press)

If I were a Liberal, I would be very happy with the Wheeler panel’s report on the prospects for hydraulic fracturing in Nova Scotia.

Very, very happy.

The Liberals, after all, had reason to be nervous.

The Wheeler panel was set up by the NDP on Aug. 28, 2013, only ten days before Premier Darrell Dexter pulled the plug on his government. Anything done so close to an election call was, we should assume, intended primarily to take a steaming hot potato off the electoral table.

And fracking is among the hottest of potatoes, not because everyone has an opinion on it, but because of the intense depth of feeling of those who oppose it.

The McNeil government didn’t have to guess what would happen if fracking was given the green light in Nova Scotia. They only had to read news reports from Quebec and New Brunswick. They only had to listen to what was said at the public meetings that David Wheeler held around the province.

As it turns out, the McNeil government needn’t have worried. For them, the Wheeler report is a political trifecta.

First, the McNeil government doesn’t have to say yes or no to anybody, which is a politician’s dream. 

It would have been embarrassing for Gallant if a credible report came out saying that fracking is good to go

There’s something in the Wheeler report for everyone. Both supporters and opponents can see what they want. One gas industry representative, quoted by the CBC, pretty much summed it up by saying that they could see the report as positive or negative, but they choose — they choose — to see the positive.

Second, the Wheeler recommendations won’t interfere with the coronation of Stephen McNeil’s Liberal cousins in New Brunswick.

Premier David Alward and his Progressive Conservatives have staked their re-election bid on resource development, especially fracking, while Brian Gallant’s Liberals have taken a more cautious approach.

It would have been embarrassing for Gallant if, in the middle of the New Brunswick campaign, a credible report came out saying that fracking is good to go. Gallant's path to victory on Sept. 22 will continue uninterrupted.

Third, the Wheeler report fits nicely with the position of the Liberals’ national leader, Justin Trudeau, when he was in New Brunswick last weekend at Gallant’s side. He, too, called for more study.

Lest there be a misunderstanding, let me be perfectly clear: The Wheeler report is no partisan political document. It is deeply researched, well thought out, and well written. It was delivered on time, and had a very modest budget. It is a model of its kind.

It just happens to be perfectly in sync with the Liberals’ agenda.

The Wheeler report is at pains to state that it is not recommending a “go slow” approach, nor is it recommending a moratorium.

Yet faithfully implementing the report’s recommendations — more study, more talk, gathering baseline data, developing a model of community consent, genuine aboriginal consultation — will take years.

If the McNeil government accepts the Wheeler recommendations, and it will, then there is a moratorium in all but name.

Uranium controversy of 1981

There are remarkable similarities between this issue and the uranium controversy that was just as hot thirty years ago. 

In 1981, following a public outcry arising from aggressive tactics by exploration companies, the Buchanan government declared an unofficial moratorium on uranium exploration, and appointed Judge Robert McCleave to conduct an inquiry.

In his report, issued in January 1985, Judge McCleave came to conclusions very similar to Wheeler’s: the resource could likely be exploited safely, but more study was needed. 

The research effort then disappeared into the bowels of the bureaucracy. The moratorium was extended, and then extended again in 1990. When the interdepartmental committee finally reported in 1995, it recommended that the moratorium be lifted. It wasn’t, and the unofficial moratorium continued until it was legislated into effect in 2009.

The fracking file is now on Energy Minister Andrew Younger’s desk. He says he expects to announce the McNeil government’s position before the legislature resumes on Sept. 25.

I don’t want to rob Minister Younger of his moment in the spotlight, but he’s a politician, and here’s what he’ll announce: the McNeil government accepts all of the Wheeler panel’s recommendations.

And the coda, which he won’t say out loud, is: Happily. Very, very happily.

About the Author

Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.