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Ontario government quietly drills shale gas formations in the province

The Ontario Geological Survey (OGS), an arm of the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, released a report yesterday highlighting shale gas potential in the Ordovician Shale formations located in Southern Ontario.

While buried in a 486-page report on the OGS’ Summary of Field Work and Other Activities for 2012, Section 29 on the Potential Ordovician Shale Gas Units in Southern Ontario raises several concerns.

The OGS began planning the drilling program in 2009 which was to “establish the potential for shale gas” and determine whether the sources were “economically viable.”

In 2010, the first drilling program conducted in the Kettle Point Formation, located in Sarnia-Lambton and Chatham-Kent County, did find some viable sources. Yesterday’s report, however, highlights certain formations of the Ordovician shales – particularly the Rouge River Member of the Blue Mountain Formation and the Collingwood Member of the Cobourg Formation – as having “the best potential for shale gas productive units.” In 2010, the Ministry of Natural Resources released an aerial survey of shale formations in Ontario with the purpose of assisting gas companies in exploration.

In recent years, shale gas development using hydraulic fracturing has become highly controversial in Canada and around the world. Hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” is a method of extracting natural gas from harder to access unconventional sources such as shale rock formations and coal beds. Millions of litres of water, thousands of litres of chemicals and thousands of pounds of sand are injected underground at very high pressure creating fractures in the rock allowing gas to flow up the well. There are many risks associated with fracking including groundwater contamination from undisclosed chemicals, impacts on air quality and climate change, the lack of solutions to safely dispose of fracking wastewater and links to earthquakes.

The Ordovician shales include layers of different formations including the Queenston, Georgian Bay, Blue Mountain and the Cobourg Formations. The Ordovician formations are located on Manitoulin Island and all of Southern Ontario including South Bruce Peninsula, Sarnia, Windsor and Toronto. In this second drilling program, the OGS drilled in 11 locations including St. Joseph, Little Current, Wiarton, Bruce, Chatham, Port Stanely, Halton, Mount Forest, Imperial Lincoln, Pickering and Russell.

Developing these shale formations could have serious implications on the waters of Georgian Bay, the Great Lakes as well as local watersheds.

Despite being innocuously written, the reports on these drilling programs are significant and raise a host of questions. While the drilling programs did not use hydraulic fracturing, the Ontario government should’ve asked ‘do Ontarians and First Nations want shale gas development in Ontario?’ before the drilling programs were conducted. Why hasn’t the Ontario government opened up the topic for public debate? When will the Ontario government conduct studies on hydraulic fracturing and its impacts on water, air quality, climate change and public health? And how much taxpayers’ dollars has the Ontario government sunk into these drilling programs?

Gord Miller, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, recently blasted the Ontario government for excluding the public from key environmental decisions. The Ontario government has quietly taken a preliminary step toward shale gas development without consulting First Nations and including Ontarians in public debate on whether they want fracking in their communities.

It is a part of the OGS’ role to “conduct research on the character of the geological materials that host the energy resources so that their potential is understood.” However, given decreasing water sources in Southern Canada and evidence pointing to the impacts of climate change, we need to limit the development of non-renewable energy sources, expand renewable energy use and improve energy conservation, energy efficiency and food sovereignty measures. Most importantly, we need to include communities in the discussion on a just transition away from a fossil fuel and nuclear dependent society.

While we await for MPPs to launch their bids for party leadership, potential candidates can be sure that fracking will continue to be a hotly contested issue in the province – as it is across the country, in First Nations and around the world.