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Glaring info gaps a strong reason to stop fracking

Late Wednesday evening, the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) released its long-awaited report Environmental Impacts of Shale Gas Extraction in Canada. In September 2011, former Environment Minister Peter Kent tasked the CCA to address the following questions:

What is the state of knowledge of potential environmental impacts from the exploration, extraction, and development of Canada’s shale gas resources, and what is the state of knowledge of associated mitigation options?

If there is a consistent message throughout the report, it is this: we do not know enough about fracking.

The 260-page report pointed out critical information gaps in our understanding of fracking in a number of areas:

  • Leaks: “The assessment of environmental impacts is hampered by a lack of information about many key issues, particularly the problem of fluids escaping from incompletely sealed wells.” (p. xiii)

  • Chemical migration underground: “little is known about the mobility and fate of hydraulic fracturing chemicals and wastewater in the subsurface” (p. xiii)

  • Flowback:  “not enough is known about the fate of the chemicals in the flowback” (p. xiii)

  • Well deterioration and impacts of leaks: “Information concerning the impacts of leakage of natural gas from poor cement seals on fresh groundwater resources is insufficient. The nature and rate of cement deterioration are poorly understood and there is only minimal or misleading information available in the public domain. Research is also lacking on methods for detecting and measuring leakage of GHGs to the atmosphere.” (p. xvii)

  • Cumulative impacts: “The Panel notes that the research needed to support improved science-based decisions concerning cumulative environmental impacts has not yet begun.

  • Hydrogeology: “The linkages between groundwater and surface water resources across the country are not well understood, and historical surface water records for all of the areas under development are seldom good.” (p. 96)

  • Wastewater injection: “More information on the potential for geological formations in these provinces to receive large volumes of injected fluids without over-pressurizing reservoirs is needed to determine whether this waste disposal option is possible.” (p. 133)

  • Safety of fracking chemicals: “The mixtures of chemicals associated with shale gas activities are generally unknown and untested, making it difficult to predict and assess risk from direct/indirect exposures.” (p. 146)

Interestingly, despite the glaring information gaps that the CCA panel detailed in their report, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq’s director of communications, Ted Laking said: “We believe that shale gas deposits can be developed safely, responsibly, and in compliance with the strict environmental policies and regulations in place.”

The panel, made up of 14 recognized scientists and experts, had two key concerns – the threat to clean groundwater and surface water and the risk of greenhouse gas emissions – and raised a host of other concerns.

Water contamination and availability

The report outlined concerns about well leaks as a “long-recognized yet unresolved problem” and warned, “The greatest threat to groundwater is gas leakage from wells for which even existing best practices cannot assure long-term prevention.”

Flowback is also a threat and the panel warns that it is “potentially hazardous waste because it typically contains hydrocarbons including variable amounts of benzene and other aromatics, fracturing chemicals, and potentially hazardous constituents leached from the shale (e.g., salts, metals, metalloids, and natural radioactive constituents).”

Spills also pose a risk to water resources: “Accidental surface releases of fracturing chemicals and wastewater, and changes in hydrology and water infiltration caused by new infrastructure, may affect shallow groundwater and surface water resources.”

Another key area where we are lack information and that is not raised often enough is how chemicals used in the fracking process reacted “under high temperature and pressure” including “information on concentration, mobility, persistence in groundwater and surface water, and bio-accumulation properties, for each chemical on its own and as a mixture.

The report states that the amount of water needed for shale gas development is “generally small in the Canadian hydrological context.” However, it’s important to consider all the outer strains on our water sources including other industrial use, climate change and multi-point pollution. The CCA panel does warn that water used for “the hydraulic fracturing procedure requires large volumes of water over short periods of time (several weeks to months), which could create stresses due to quantity and related quality impacts at particular times of the year in some parts of the country. Problems may arise at the driest time of the year when demand is highest for many water uses, at the coldest time when surface waters are mostly frozen and active flow is low, or during critical periods when water levels are important for access to critical habitats.” (p. 88)

Greenhouse gas emissions

The report points out that there are conflicting studies on whether shale gas development will decrease greenhouse gases, “Whether shale gas development will actually reduce GHG emissions and slow climate change will depend on several variables, including which energy sources it displaces (viz., coal and oil vs. nuclear and renewables), and the volume of methane emissions from gas leakage at the wellhead and in the distribution system.”

However, a Cornell University study found that when you calculate the lifecycle greenhouse gases, fracking is worse than coal.

Fracking on Indigenous lands

The report points out that fracking occurs largely on Indigenous lands “who depend on the local environment for food and water and whose culture may be particularly affected.” It also warns, “If shale gas development expands, risks to quality of life and well-being in some communities may become significant due to the combination of diverse factors related to land use, water quality, air quality, and loss of rural serenity, among others. These factors are particularly relevant to the ability of Aboriginal peoples to maintain their traditional way of life; several First Nations have expressed concerns about the possible impacts of shale gas development on their quality of life and their rights.” (p. xv)

With the Conservatives gutting of environmental legislation, water takings for fracking projects in First Nation communities no longer trigger an environmental assessment under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

This directly contradicts Agluqakk’s director of communications assertion that “compliance with the strict environmental policies and regulations in place.”

Shale gas vs. conventional oil and gas

The panel determined that shale gas development poses greater risks than conventional oil and gas development. The report pointed out that several factors make the long term impact of leakage for shale gas development greater than conventional oil and gas development including

  • The diverse and toxic chemicals used in fracking

  • That shale gas development occurs rural and suburban areas that rely on groundwater

  • The repetitive nature of fracturing

Can fracking be done safely?

The report recommends a go-slow approach “to allow for additional data collection, to permit adaptation to the implications of new information, and to encourage integration of multidisciplinary expertise.” However, the panel warns of that we don’t have the information needed to determine whether fracking can be done safely,  “…there may also be some negative impacts of development that cannot be eliminated, and the scientific basis for identifying areas that are particularly vulnerable has not been established.”

The Council of Canadians does not believe that fracking can be done safely. The CCA report noted, “In Quebec, a study found that a large proportion of wells (18 out of the 29 shale gas wells drilled to date) leak, although some leaked at almost imperceptible rates; however, all of these wells were less than three years old when tested (BAPE, 2011b).” (p. 109)

The National Wildlife Federation points out that there 13 different types of chemical additives that are needed in the hydraulic fracturing process including acids, clay stabilizers, gelling agents, corrosion inhibitors, biocides, friction reducers, and surfactants. The Endocrine Disruption Exchange has warned that these chemicals have a range of negative health and environmental impacts.

A surprising sceptic of whether fracking can be done safely turned out to be former Mobil Oil executive Louis Allstadt. The Times Union recently reported: “‘Making fracking safe is simply not possible, not with the current technology, or with the inadequate regulations being proposed,’ said Allstadt, retired executive vice president of Mobil. He spoke during a news conference called by Elected Officials to Protect New York, a group which represents more than 800 officials from all 62 counties statewide that have adopted anti-fracking resolutions.”

A holistic approach

Despite the economic benefits industry and government often tout, the report warns, “While shale gas development will provide varied economic benefits, it may also adversely affect water and air quality and community well-being as a result of the rapid growth of an extraction industry in rural and semi-rural areas.”

The panel also stressed the importance of taking a holistic approach. The negative impacts – water contamination, water availability, climate change, air quality, land use, seismic activity, human health and community well-being – do not happen in isolation. The report stated, “Examination of the environmental effects of shale gas development should not be isolated from socio-economic, environmental, institutional, andcultural contexts…Governmental agencies in the United States and Europe increasingly recognize social impacts, including the effects on communities, landscapes, and cultural heritage, as worthy of rigorous analysis (Interorganizational Committee on Guidelines and Principles for Social Impact Assessment, 1994; IAIA, 1999; Watson, 2003). In Canada, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012, includes the principle of sustainable development, which by definition involves attention to meeting the needs of the future (Minister of Justice, 2012).”

What’s missing from the study

The question the federal government asked of the CCA was focused on the state of knowledge of fracking. There are still many issues that are not covered in this review that are pertinent to deciding whether to move forward with horizontal, multi-stage fracking. Fracking in the Bakken in Saskatchewan and Manitoba is for shale oil which has been deemed a dangerous form of oil because of its explosive nature. A study of shale oil is equally warranted.

With claims that fracking creates new jobs, we need a rigorous assessment of how many direct, long-term jobs have been created from different fracking projects in Canada. We also need a comparison of how many jobs would be created from green jobs and industries. For example, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ report “Enbridge Pipedreams and Nightmares” notes that Enbridge boasts that a fossil fuel project like the $5 billion Northern Gateway Pipeline would create 63,000 person-years of employment during its construction phase, and 1,146 full-time jobs once completed. However, CCPA reveals these estimates are overblown and that it would only create approximately 1,850 construction jobs per year for three years, and a handful of permanent new jobs once completed. The report points out that between 3 and 34 times the number of direct jobs would be created if the $5 billion were invested in green jobs and industries.

While the CCA report looks at the greenhouse gas emissions for coal, natural gas, nuclear, wind, soloar and other forms of energy, an analysis of the water, health and other impacts is needed. Recognizing that these topics were outside the purview of the CCA’s study, this is still information the public needs to decide whether fracking is the solution to our energy needs.

Governments also need an assessment of the rates of well production decline in provinces that are fracking. Fracking is a classic ‘short-term gain for long-term pain’ example. Fracked wells produce a lot in the first three years of their existence and then go into steep decline. David Hughes highlights that four out of five shale plays in the U.S., accounting for 80% of production, are already in production decline, or are “flat.” The CCA report points out that a company “focuses on indentifying the most favourable areas for development” or what are known as ‘sweet spots’.  Extracting gas from ‘sweet spots’ and steep well decline can impact job creation and gas prices.

Communities want a ban on fracking

It is clear we do not know enough about fracking to declare that it is safe. However, based on what we do know and what we have seen, communities don’t want fracking to continue. They do not want to put their water sources or health at risk. And they want to take action to curb climate change and build towards a future lit with renewable. Lethbridge is the most recent community to say no to oil drilling in their community. http://canadians.org/blog/win-goldenkey-abandons-plans-drill-lethbridge Many communities continue to fight fracking in their community. To connect with other groups in your community or to lend solidarity to communities fighting fracking, see A Fractivist’s Toolkit: How you can take action to protect water and stop fracking.

Yesterday morning, the Council of Canadians set up a mock fracking rig on Parliament Hill and staged a mock fracking wastewater spill to highlight the risks of fracking. We delivered 16,000 signed petitions to NDP MP Francois Choquette, Green Party MP Bruce Hyer and NDP MP Megan Leslie from people calling for a ban.

It’s clear the Harper government isn’t interested in acting on the findings of the report it commissioned. Provinces in the Atlantic have held off making decisions about fracking.  

UNESCO made the timely announcement that they want a frack-free zone around Gros Morne National Park which could be stripped of its World Heritage Site designation if Newfoundland and Labrador moves forward with fracking. Brian Gallant, leader of the Liberal Party of New Brunswick, continued his commitment to a moratorium on fracking if elected on September 22.

Based on the findings of the CCA report, we urge all premiers to put a stop to fracking because we simply don’t have enough information to declare that it’s safe.