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Nova Scotia energy minister hopes to make decision on fracking within month

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia's energy minister is promising a quick decision on the status of hydraulic fracturing after receiving a report Thursday that says it shouldn't be allowed for the foreseeable future.

Andrew Younger wouldn't comment on the 387-page report because he needs time to read it, but he said the public deserves a response within a "reasonable time frame," adding he hopes to have a decision before the legislature resumes Sept. 25.

The report by David Wheeler, the president of Cape Breton University, says fracking shouldn't be allowed until more independent research is done on health, environmental and economic impacts.

"Based on the analysis described in this report a significant period of learning and dialogue is now required ... and thus hydraulic fracturing for the purpose of unconventional gas and oil development should not proceed at the present time in Nova Scotia," says the report, which comes after a six-month study.

The main finding isn't a surprise after Wheeler told public hearings last month that the province needed more time to catch up with the rapidly expanding industry.

A two-year moratorium on fracking was put in place by the previous NDP government in 2012. Younger said there is no deadline on the moratorium because it was a policy decision that was not set in legislation.

"When we respond we will be able to say what the future of hydraulic fracturing is in Nova Scotia," said Younger.

The report also recommends establishing a process to get a community's permission before a project is allowed to proceed.

"Using hydraulic fracturing would proceed only when full, prior and informed community consent was established and baseline health, socio-economic, socio-ecological and environmental monitoring and regulatory protections were in place," the report says.

It also says any potential development on aboriginal reserves would have to respect treaty rights and the Mi'kmaq would have a right to economic benefits.

As far as potential benefits, the report estimates that under a lower- to medium-case scenario of 4,000 wells, the industry could be worth up to $1 billion annually to the economy and create as many as 1,500 direct jobs in the development phase.

Provincial royalties would peak at just over $200 million a year under the same model about 40 years after drilling begins and would result in just under $6 billion in total to provincial coffers over a 60-year development period.

Jennifer West of the Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre called the report "really encouraging" and applauded its call for more study.

"I think that's really important because there's still so many gaps in information," said West, whose group wants to see a 10-year legislated moratorium to study the way forward.

She described the community permission recommendation as a lofty goal, but added she hasn't seen it work successfully when it was suggested in the mining sector.

The report advocates an open-minded approach to the issue and emphasizes that the ultimate decision should not be rushed.

"We strongly suggest that whatever time is needed for each of these steps that it should be taken without any sense of deadline setting or impatience by any actor," the report says.

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