Quick Guide to the Water and Fracking Conference in Toronto

Last Thursday I attended the Water and Hydraulic Fracturing in Canada: Information for Investors and Everyone Else organized by the Program on Water Issues at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

In a packed room, a range of experts provided a broad range of information from the federal review on fracking to water impacts to lessons learned from the U.S.

Report: Environmental Impacts of Shale Gas Extraction in Canada

Adèle Hurley, Director of the  Program  on  Water introduced Dr.  John  Cherry,  Chair of the Council  of  Canadian  Academies’ Expert  Panel  on  Harnessing  Science  and  Technology  to  Understand  the  Environmental  Impacts  of  Shale  Gas  Extraction, who gave the keynote to a packed room and described his experience and findings of the panel.

He talked about six national reports done around the world including Germany and Australia. He addressed the point that government and industry often tout that there are ‘no known cases of contamination.’ While he said he didn’t think they likely aren’t there but admitted that ‘no one’s gone looking for it.’ Later in his presentation, Dr. Cherry made clear that nowhere has rigorous water monitoring ever been done.

The panel comprised of 14 scientists and experts. A key concern is well leaks was and the fact that this is ‘a long recognized yet unresolved problem,’ as is pointed out in the panel's report, Environmental Impacts of Shale Gas Extraction in Canada.

Despite all the risks outlined in the report, an audience member asked why the precautionary principle was not invoked. However, Dr. Cherry’s stated that if we stopped ourselves from doing things because of the risks we would never move forward as a society.

Dr. Cherry’s response is particularly concerning given the gravity of the risks associated with fracking, especially when it comes to the potential impacts on lakes, rivers and other water sources. Principle 15 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environmental and Development gives a general description of this principle: “In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.” Environment Canada’s website states: “Canada’s environmental policy is guided by the precautionary principle and is reflected in the FSDS as required by the Federal Sustainable Development Act which states that the Minister of Environment must ‘develop a Federal Sustainable Development Strategy based on the precautionary principle’.”

When the report was released, the Council of Canadians set up a mock fracking rig on Parliament Hill to bring attention to the risks associated with fracking (see picture on the right).

Fracking, water use and water stress

Monika Freyman, Senior  Manager for Ceres’ Water  Program, then presented on Ceres’ research on water use and fracking. Ceres recently came out with the report Hydraulic Fracturing & Water Stress: Water Demand by the Numbers that found that roughly 47% of fracking wells in the US were in areas of high or extremely high water stress. In Texas, the local impacts were particularly great in small towns. Some numbers showed that water use for fracking was half of and in one case more than what the town used.

Ceres used data from the FracFocus website (where companies provide information on fracking operations on a voluntary basis). In Alberta, 14% of wells were found to be in high or extreme water stress areas and 20% in medium or higher water stress. There has also been an increase the use of saline ground water and currently makes  up 40% of the total oil and gas industry water use. For water use in British Columbia, the report notes: “ The province reported that 4.3 billion gallons of water were approved for withdrawal by the oil and gas industry in 2013...Although there is relatively low water stress due to a low population density and high precipitation rates in many regions, this region is very much affected by seasonal variability in surface water flows. Several regions in northeast British Columbia, for example, in 2012 experienced snowpack at 61 percent of average levels, half of normal rainfall levels and record low levels in some rivers, prompting regulators to limit withdrawals from these sources.  The Horn River and Montney regions have also experienced drought conditions recently, compounding regional water sourcing concerns.”

Public  Interest,  Private  Gain:  Views  on  Fracking  from  Both  Sides  of  the Border

Russell Gold, Senior Energy  Reporter  at  the  Wall  Street  Journal  and  author  of  The  Boom:  How  Fracking  Ignited  the  American  Energy  Revolution  and  Changed  the  World, gave the packed room an overview of fracking in the U.S. Based on the staggering statistic that 100 wells are fracked each day, he warned that even if one in 1000 wells are leaking, “that’s a bad well every two weeks.”

Andrew Nikiforuk, author  of  The  Energy  of  Slaves  and  forthcoming  book, Fracking  the  Earth (to be released in 2015), described the impacts of fracking in Canada. When asked by moderator Brian Stewart to address the argument that we have no alternative but to go ahead with fracking, Nikiforuk highlighted the fact that there really is no debate about the alternatives. He also stressed the importance of having independent authorities whose only interest is groundwater protection.

Transparency  and  disclosure  to  minimize  water  risks  related  to  shale  energy  development

Richard Liroff from Investor Environmental Health kicked off this afternoon panel. He described the report Disclosing the Facts: Transparency and Risk in Hydraulic Fracturing Operations http://disclosingthefacts.org/ which found that out of the 24 companies assessed, there was not one company that disclosed even half of the 32 indicators on management of toxic chemicals, water use, fracking wastewater, air emissions and community impacts.

Research commissioned by the Principles for Responsible Investment conducted a larger assessment reviewing 56 oil and gas companies on 56 indicators on disclosure. The research examined four areas in fracking including governance and risk management, greenhouse gases, water quality and community relations. The average score was only 21% disclosure meaning the average company only disclosed 11.5 out of the 56 indicators.

Rob Visser, Chief Negotiator for Fort Nelson First Nation and former Liberal MLA, replaced Lana Lowe, Director for the Fort Nelson First Nation  Department  of  Land  and  Resources, who was originally slated to speak. He gave an overview of Northeastern B.C. which is at the centre of fracking in the province. What was concerning was that Visser revealed that he has been “hammering out” deals with Apache and that “everything is on the table” including all lakes, rivers, Debolt aquifer, shallow aquifers and deep aquifers. As noted by Cere’s report  the region is already experience water issues from fracking. Roughly a year and a half ago, the community expressed opposition to water takings for fracking by Encana and gathered 32,000 signatures calling on Premier Christy Clark to stop giving away fresh water for fracking. (Photo of Liard River in by David Adamec)

The panel also included Peter  Chapman (Shareholder  Association  for  Research  and  Education), Sarah Teslik  (Apache  Corporation), Jason  P.  Gosselin (Drinker  Biddle  &  Reath  LLP), Steven  Heim (Boston  Common  Asset Management) and was moderated by Andrew  Logan (Ceres). To watch the video clip of this panel, click here.

Focus  on  water:  What  is  the  future  for  shale  energy  development  in  Canada  in  2014  and  beyond?

Dave  Hughes, geoscientist  and  former  research  manager of Geological  Survey  of  Canada debunked the myths around shale gas reserves. He noted the high decline rate in the first three years and warned that this “puts you on a drilling treadmill.”

Stephanie Merrill from Conservation Council of New Brunswick raised community concerns in New Brunswick and said that water has been the common thread weaves through the community and their concerns. 64% of New Brunswickers rely on groundwater for drinking water which is what largely led to opposition and mobilization of communities. She pointed out that some communities do not want fracking.

Hugo Tremblay, an environmental lawyer in Quebec, provided information on some of the by-laws passed in the province.  A a blueprint by-law was drafted by lawyers which did three things: impose protection areas for drinking water so fracking was prohibited in these areas, require municipal permits and required disclosure (though all data is disclosed to the MOE but the public has no right to get the data). He discussed the Gaspé by-law that was struck down recently the Quebec Superior Court. There are plans to drill on Anticosti Island, an ecologically sensitive island situated on top of the Utica Shale deposit at the outlet of the St. Lawrence River about 900 kilometers northeast of Montreal.

The panel also included Robert  Walker (NEI Investments), François  Meloche (Bâtirente  Inc.) and Ralph Pentland (Ralbet  Enterprises). To watch the video clip of this panel, click here.

We need to protect our lakes, rivers and groundwater by banning fracking

As one audience member suggested, the risks with fracking are too great and we should be invoking the precautionary principle. We are less than a year and a half away from the federal election. Be sure to ask your Member of Parliament what their position is on fracking. To sign our petition calling for a ban on fracking, click here. To read A Fractivist’s Toolkit: How you can take action to protect water and stop fracking, click here.