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Why communities across Canada are calling for a freeze on fracking

Written by Emma Lui for the Public Sector Digest, January 15, 2014


“Fracking releases large amounts of natural gas, which consists of both CO2 and methane, directly into the atmosphere. Methane, in particular, is a very powerful greenhouse gas because it can trap 20 to 25 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.”

Atlantic Canada has become a hotbed of opposition to fracking. Elsipogtog protests in New Brunswick have captured national attention, Newfoundland and Labrador recently declared a temporary ban, Nova Scotia has committed to ban the import of fracking wastewater on top of its moratorium, and Prince Edward Island’s Standing Committee on Agriculture, Environment, Energy and Forestry has recommended a moratorium on high volume hydraulic fracturing. This recent wave of opposition has put a brighter spotlight on the impacts fracking has on public health, water, and climate change in communities across the country.

I. What is fracking?

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as ‘fracking’, is a process used to extract natural gas or oil from shale rock, coal seams, and other sources. Fracking uses millions of litres of water, thousands of litres of unknown chemicals, and thousands of kilograms of sand to blast apart rock formations in order to capture natural gas or oil trapped in shale formations or coal seams.

Communities everywhere are raising concerns about fracking and the potential for water contamination, increases in greenhouse gases, the lack of disclosure of fracking chemicals, and how moving forward on fracking will hinder Canada’s ability to fulfill its obligation to protect the human right to water and sanitation.

II. A threat to water sources

Fracking uses unsustainable amounts of water. A fracking project requires anywhere from 10 million to 200 million litres of water, along with a toxic chemical cocktail. There are no known safe methods to dispose of fracking wastewater and the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission has linked earthquakes with the injection of wastewater underground.

There have been cases of water contamination reported in Grande Prairie, Alberta, Dawson’s Creek, British Columbia, Rosebud, Alberta and more than 1,000 cases in Colorado, New Mexico, Alabama, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. There is a global water crisis and Canadian and Indigenous communities are not immune to its effects. Statistics Canada released a report in recent years that found that southern Canada lost 8.5 percent of its renewable water sources over a 34 year period.

III. Exacerbating climate change

There is a global climate crisis, and Canada must take responsibility for its previous and ongoing contributions to the problem. Despite industry representatives and some governments promoting natural gas as a “clean, green fuel,” studies show that fracked natural gas can produce as much greenhouse gas emissions as coal. Fracking releases large amounts of natural gas, which consists of both CO2 and methane, directly into the atmosphere. Methane, in particular, is a very powerful greenhouse gas because it can trap 20 to 25 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

Fracking and other parts of the fossil fuel industry are preventing Canada from reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and doing its fair share to mitigate the global climate crisis.

IV. Fracking in Canada

British Columbia is home to what’s known as the world’s ‘largest frack’, with shale gas reserves in the Horn River, Montney, Liard, and Cordova basins located in the province’s northeastern corner. Fracking has long been used in Alberta to extract oil and gas, but horizontal, multi-stage fracking has more recently been used to access methane gas and conventional oil in the province. In the remaining Prairie provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, companies are fracking in the Bakken Formation for oil.

Northern communities are now being threatened by fracking projects with Northern Cross conducting seismic testing in the Yukon. The National Energy Board recently approved a fracking project by ConocoPhilips in Tulita, the first horizontal fracking project permitted in the Northwest Territories.

While there is presently no fracking underway in Ontario, the Ontario Geological Survey has highlighted the shale gas potential in the Ordovician Shale formation located in southern Ontario. Enbridge and Union Gas are also seeking approval for a pipeline project that would transport fracked gas from the Marcellus shale in the U.S. through the Great Lakes to Toronto.

Quebec has a de facto moratorium in the Saint Lawrence River Valley, but groups are urging the government to pass a bill that would entrench the moratorium into law and to expand the bill’s reach to the rest of the province. Lone Pine Resources has filed a $250 million lawsuit against the Canadian government for Quebec’s fracking moratorium, a threat to local democracy and communities’ right to protect water sources and public health.

New Brunswick is the only province in Atlantic Canada that currently permits fracking. Before Newfoundland and Labrador placed a temporary ban on fracking, Shoal Point Energy Ltd. and Black Spruce Exploration Corp. had submitted an application to frack in three communities in the province. An enclave community in Gros Morne National Park is at risk of losing its UNESCO World Heritage Status if fracking is permitted.

In the summer, the Nova Scotia government announced that it would cancel the current review of fracking and replace it with a more comprehensive and independent review that would include public consultations and an advisory panel of experts who would examine the social, economic, environmental, and health impacts of fracking. There have been six wells fracked in P.E.I., but there are currently no active permits in the province and there may soon be a moratorium if the government adopts the recommendation of the Standing Committee on Agriculture, Environment, Energy and Forestry.

V. Free, prior, and informed consent of first nations

Fracking is occurring in First Nation communities, many of which are on unceded territory, such as Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick and the Lubicon Lake Nation in Alberta.

In a Toronto Star article, Métis writer and educator Chelsea Vowel wrote “The majority of Canadians have been woefully under- informed about what is one of the most important outstanding issues related to the events in Elsipogtog: land and resource ownership. In 1997, the landmark Supreme Court Decision in Delgamuukw finally clarified that even under Canadian law, Aboriginal title to most of the land within British Columbia’s provincial borders had never been extinguished. This ruling had immediate implications for other areas of the country where no treaties ceding land ownership were ever signed.”

The UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Canada endorsed in 2010, requires governments to obtain from Indigenous peoples “their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources.”

VI. Lagging regulations

Regulation for fracking falls largely to provinces and territories because of their power to issue drilling and water permits. However, the federal government has a responsibility to regulate fracking under the National Pollutant Release Inventory as well as federal legislation such as the Fisheries Act, the Species at Risk Act, and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. While hydraulic fracturing has been used for decades for vertical wells, horizontal multi-stage fracking is new, and provincial regulations have not caught up to this expanding technology.

Cornell University professor and fracking expert Dr. Anthony R. Ingraffea told the federal Standing Committee on Natural Resources that horizontal fracking requires anywhere from 50 to 100 times more fluids, which increases the risk of accidents. It also requires that the toxic mix of chemicals, water, and sand be blasted into the ground at higher pressures, which increases the risk for potential well, valve, or pipe failures.

VII. The economic promise

Some governments and industry representatives promote fracking as a way to boost job creation. U.S. organization Food & Water Watch has produced reports showing that the estimate of new jobs created by developing the Marcellus Shale would create no more than two jobs per well in the state compared to the Public Policy Institute of New York State’s claims of 125 jobs per well.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reported that job estimates for a fossil fuel project like the $5 billion Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline are overblown and between 3 and 34 times as many jobs would be created if the $5 billion were invested in green jobs and industries. Governments need to transition from relying on the short-lived fossil fuel industry for job creation and create truly sustainable jobs in other sectors.

VIII. Trade secrets

Paul Barnes, Atlantic Canada manager with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers recently wrote a letter to the editor in the Telegram stating “For example, disclosure of fracturing fluid additives is mandatory in B.C. and Alberta, and can be found online at FracFocus.ca.” However, provincial and federal governments do not legally require companies to disclose the chemicals they use for fracking. In fact, the specific combination and quantities of chemicals used are considered proprietary trade secrets.

In Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development Scott Vaughan’s 2012 report, he warned, “With the oil and gas sector exempted from reporting pollutant releases, the government cannot know if Canadians are adequately protected.”

A report by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce listed 750 chemicals commonly used in the fracking process from 2005-2009, some of which are carcinogens and hazardous air pollutants such as methanol, diesel, and naphthalene.

Under the Chemicals Management Plan (CMP), Environment Canada reviewed 265 chemicals used in the fracking process in both Quebec and the U.S. Only 13 of the 265 chemicals have been assessed under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act and only a quarter will be addressed under the CMP. Approximately half of the fracking chemicals did not meet the CMP criteria for further investigation, meaning these chemicals have not been assessed for potential risks to the public.

The 2012 omnibudget bills drastically scaled back environmental legislation. Changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act resulted in the cancellation of 3,000 project reviews across the country, some of which were fracking projects, or applications related to fracking. The claw back of the Navigable Waters Protection Act (now the Navigation Protection Act) not only exempted pipeline projects from this Act, but also removed protections from 99 per cent of lakes and rivers in Canada.

With the claw back of federal environmental legislation and lagging provincial legislation, governments are allowing fracking to proceed where there are serious regulatory gaps.

IX. The right to water and sanitation

Governments must also regulate fracking under its obligation to uphold the human right to water and sanitation. In July 2010, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelming to pass a resolution recognizing the human right to water and sanitation. The UN Human Rights Council has also passed resolutions outlining governments’ obligations concerning the right to water and sanitation. This right is now enshrined in international law and all countries must ensure its implementation.

At the 2012 Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, then Environment Minister Peter Kent conceded that the human right to water not only exists, but that it is integral to the right to an adequate standard of living under the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.

Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN’s special rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, wrote specifically about fracking and its relationship to the human right to water during her visit to the United States in 2011. De Albuquerque’s U.S. report notes the concerns raised about the impacts of fracking on water and recommends that countries need to take “a holistic consideration of the right to water by factoring it into policies having an impact on water quality, ranging from agriculture to chemical use in products to energy production activities.”

In order to fulfill Canada’s obligation to uphold the human right to water and sanitation, governments at all levels must put a stop to fracking. The risk that fracking poses to water, public health, and climate change is one that governments cannot afford.

For more information visit www.canadians.org/fracking.