Beyond Moratorium: Hydraulic Fracturing’s Future in Newfoundland and Labrador

Hydraulic fracturing–otherwise known as, ‘fracking’–has become a major topic of debate in policy circles, scientific discourse, and popular discussion. This method of extracting oil and gas, used since the 1940s, involves pumping a mixture of water, sand, and various chemicals into bedrock in order to extract the desired resource.

Fracking south of the border inspires much of the debate within Canada. The United States is set to achieve energy independence in an estimated twenty years, largely because of shale-gas extraction, as technological innovation makes it profitable to extract resources that previously were not worth extracting.

Now, the debate rages in Newfoundland and Labrador (NL). The provincial government recently announced a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing after proposals to extract oil and gas on the province’s west coast arose. Government officials cited the need for additional review and regulation as reasons for implanting the moratorium.

As with all debates concerning resource development, the question is not, ‘are there environmental harms?’ Most human activity–farming, building dams, deforestation, etc.–inflicts some environmental damage. Rather, we must ask, “Do the benefits outweigh the harms?”

What are the benefits of hydraulic fracturing in NL’s context?

First, it would provide an economic boost to a part of the province left behind in NL’s offshore boom. Oil and gas extraction would create high-paying job opportunities for locals and reduce dependence on government transfer programs. It would also drive growth in the region and increase government revenues, contributing to potential future budget surpluses.

Nevertheless, government should learn from its past mistakes in dealing with revenue from hydraulic fracturing. NL’s government dramatically increased public spending when offshore oil royalties increased, making services including healthcare and education dependent on a potentially volatile source of revenue. Fracking royalties, therefore, should not justify further spending hikes.

Regarding fracking’s environmental impact, water is the most common concern: hydraulic fracturing requires large amounts of water to extract resources and purportedly threatens local water supplies when ‘fracking fluid’ leaks.

If water miles below the Earth’s surface is contaminated, there is a less chance of public harm; however, if fracking affects surface water, there is an obvious danger to the drinking water supply. Preventing such pollution should be among the priorities of NL’s regulators.

Concerns about both ecological sensitivity and ecotourism also exist. Regulators must determine a way to monitor the effects of fracking on neighbouring ecosystems and punish firms that destroy public property.

It is conceivable that hydraulic fracturing could threaten tourism about Gros Morne National Park, which one company proposed drilling in. However, the need for a park-specific ban does not necessitate a province-wide ban. And, within Gros Morne, it might be possible to restrict fracking and its potential externalities to Green Point, the proposed development site.

In advancing with hydraulic fracturing, the NL’s government should balance smart regulations that minimize externalized harms while facilitating economic growth. After revisiting its regulations, the province should consider allowing the technique and add fuel to the fire of its economic ascent.

Michael Sullivan is a 2013-2014 Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ Student Fellow. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the Institute