How Big Oil lost Nova Scotia’s fracking debate

If you work in business, government, politics, communications, journalism, or marketing, and you’d like a five minute primer on how not to botch a public policy issue, read CCL Group chairman Steve Parker’s column in Thursday’s Halifax Chronicle-Herald.

I’ve been critical of the histrionics, self-righteousness, and personal attacks deployed by fracking opponents (see posts here, herehere, and here), but the truth is, Big Oil’s behaviour in the fracking debate has been equally reprehensible, as Parker cogently explains:

The seeds of the fracking ban here lay in the attitude and actions of industry who failed on two fronts: for years positioning fracking as essentially harmless and failing to respect and respond to the small but growing voices who expressed concerns and anecdotal instances of problems….

Steve Parker

Steve Parker

For years, the industry offered two messages: fracking is safe and many other places are doing it successfully. This is akin to asking your parents for permission to do something because your friends are doing it.

What the industry should have been doing during these key years, is joining the conversation—engaging with opponents, affected parties, scientists, academics and government in a variety of ways. This is what the maligned term “issues management,” is really about and how positive change happens….

Issues are won in the middle, by appealing to the common sense and experience of most people. In my view, average people may not be knowledgeable, but in large terms, they are wise, and in a democracy, they are right.

Governments will not be moved by extremist views from any source, but they are driven by the middle. On fracking, the government of Nova Scotia clearly believes the middle ground has been lost. The silence of opposition parties indicates they agree.

Industry tried to win the debate by withdrawing from it, refusing to acknowledge any problems with fracking technology when evidence of at least sporadic problems abounds, and by insisting it could inject chemicals into our shared environment without telling us what they are. The unspoken assumption behind this imperiousness was that government would cleave to industry’s loins, no matter how much the rabble protested.

Industry didn’t count on the fair-mindedness of David Wheeler, who conducted a rational, evidence-based inquiry into the risks and found most overblown, but called for a cautious approach and community buy-in.

Industry didn’t count on the craven pandering of Energy Minister Andrew Younger, who should have accepted Wheeler’s moderate approach and punted the issue for a calmer day. Instead, Younger opted for short-term political points at the expense of longterm policy prudence (a tactic honed by ceaseless demagoguery directed at the province’s regulated electric utility).

While I’m passing out brickbats, let’s mention the toadying posture of the provincial media. Until Parker’s column yesterday, the Herald’s response to the fracking ban had been a unified chorus of handwringing by columnists Black, Leger, Lethbridge, Stephenson, and Taylor, none of whom could summon even passing mention of the existential crisis bearing down on Planet Earth: climate change. It was no different at, where a fevered echo chamber of tendentious editorials and letters to the editor foresaw doom for the province and its children.

Last word to Steve Parker, whose whole column is worth a read:

[C]onvincing the public to accept needed change is about dialogue, organization, hard work, and respect for the concerns and issues raised by others. Industry and government must take their medicine and learn lessons from this failure to communicate on a fairly simple and straightforward issue.