Leading Edge / Winter 2015
On Shaky Ground

How should we evaluate the risks and benefits of fracking?


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Photo: iSTOCK

 

The impact that hydraulic fracturing has on the environment is increasingly a matter of debate. It’s been a hot potato in the United States for years and recently became a pivotal issue in the New Brunswick provincial election. Writer Dale Sproule tapped into the expertise of Andrea Olive, a political science professor at U of T Mississauga, to find out what’s gotten people agitated about fracking.

What is fracking? It’s a technology to get oil and gas out of rock formations. It involves drilling down into rock at least 10,000 feet vertically and then another 1,000 to 5,000 feet horizontally – then blasting water mixed with sand and chemicals down into the drill site. It’s essentially shaking the rock until gas or oil is released, collected and brought to the surface. The drilling companies are getting better at it. They realized that you don’t have to keep drilling over and over vertically. You just drill down once and then start drilling horizontally.

In the last 10 years, fracking has taken off. During the 2008 recession, places such as Pennsylvania and Saskatchewan used fracking as a way to create jobs and economic growth.

Why are people concerned about it? Water quality and quantity have been major concerns from the beginning. In Saskatchewan there’s not a lot of surface water, so the drilling companies are pulling from ground water – taking water that is presently used for other things, such as farming. There’s a question about whether the drilling companies are polluting aquifers through the chemical mixture that’s used during the actual fracturing process – as well as what happens after. They certainly recycle the water they use during fracking. But in the end they have to store it and that can potentially leach into the ground and pollute groundwater.

What kinds of chemicals do these companies use in the water? FracFocus.ca is a chemical disclosure registry (some Canadian provinces require disclosure). Their information gives an indication of the classification of the chemicals, but we don’t know the actual formula or the makeup. Obviously, that’s suspicious to a lot of people. And when the companies pull that water back out from the rock, it contains not just the chemicals they put in – they’re also pulling up the heavy metals from the earth.

How have governments responded? From a policy standpoint, we’re dealing with a technology that industry is able to implement and use before science has been able to catch up and evaluate it – before policy-makers have been able to assess risks. And even when risk has been assessed and everyone has access to the same science, we see policy-makers reaching different decisions. Nova Scotia – moratorium, Quebec – moratorium, but Saskatchewan – full-steam ahead fracking.

Has Saskatchewan’s approach had any noticeable environmental impact? The grasslands ecosystem in Saskatchewan is one of the most endangered in North America and it’s the only ecosystem shared by the United States, Canada and Mexico. The greater sage grouse, which can’t mate successfully within a two-mile radius of an oil and gas site, has declined about 95 per cent in the last two decades and it’s going to go extinct. I think it’s too late – at least in Canada.

Any predictions for the future of fracking in Canada? I don’t think Saskatchewan is going to stop fracking for an environmental reason. But there are things the province could be doing better to minimize the impact. They could also make the public more aware, because there’s so much secrecy around hydraulic fracturing. How do we regulate what we don’t know? How do we legislate when there’s a risk that’s uncertain or unknowable?


Reader Comments

# 1
Posted by James Bacque BA%201952 on December 18th, 2014 @ 10:11 am

As a writer and historian, I have discovered that people who hide their actions under a veil of secrecy always have something to hide–namely actions that harm the public good. The debates in the UK House of Commons in the 18th century were so secret that anyone who published them could be charged with sedition and jailed or hanged. Now we have Hansard and arguably better government.

# 2
Posted by R.J. Chernecki M.A.%201972 on December 18th, 2014 @ 11:11 am

Since we know so little about the longer term environmental consequences of fracking, wouldn’t the more rational approach be a moratorium on its continuing use?

# 3
Posted by Jeff White LL.B.%201981 on December 19th, 2014 @ 12:49 am

This article badly understates the concerns about fracking. It fails to mention, for example, the growing evidence that fracking triggers earthquake activity. It fails to talk about the massive leakage of methane gas – a powerful greenhouse gas – from fracking operations into the atmosphere. It mentions fracking’s effects on the sage grouse, but not any of the other species of flora and fauna, because the fact is that no proper environmental assessments have been done on the biological impacts of fracking. It is essentially an unregulated corporate rape of the environment. And ultimately, fracking is simply another way of extracting fossil carbon from the earth and releasing it into the atmosphere, driving global climate change, while postponing the necessary rapid transition to fully renewable energy sources.

# 4
Posted by Earl Scott BAsc'54 on December 19th, 2014 @ 8:37 pm

The Questioning of Frac safety needs analysis by those knowledgeable about Oil/gas recovery. After 45 years in western Canada’s oil patch i am amazed that oil producers haven’t provided a good evaluation in relation to other production methods. Frac’ing became popular in the mid 50’s particularly in the Cardium tight sands with some 4000 wells in the following decade having been frac’d with hardly a problem. That’s not to say other oil productivity improving methods including primary production don’t have some effect on the environment. Furthermore let’s compare the effects to other polluting effects which result from just about every human activity. I think a more serious and difficult problem is to reduce population growth.

# 5
Posted by Andrea Olive PhD%202009 on December 21st, 2014 @ 9:18 am

Indeed a moratorium would be a good approach here and a great example of the “precautionary approach” that has been adopted in other jurisdictions, like Germany, New York state, Nova Scotia, southern Quebec and Newfoundland. Scientists know very little about the environmental consequences of fracking and there is good reason to be concerned about methane, earthquakes, and the impact on flora and fauna. Risk assessment is incomplete at this point.

Risk management, an activity carried by politicians, has varied. In Saskatchewan (and Alberta, British Columbia, numerous US states, the UK and so on) politicians have decided that fracking is safe enough and that the risks are not greater than the benefits. This is unfortunate. But in cases like this, society would be best served if fracking jurisdictions could in the very least try to minimize the risk they have placed on society at large.

# 6
Posted by John Hartmann PhD%201968 on December 24th, 2014 @ 10:42 am

Is the nature of the compounds included in the fracking mining operations known?

# 7
Posted by Brad Hayes BSc%201978 on December 31st, 2014 @ 2:12 pm

The public debate over hydraulic fracturing is marred, like so many other debates over natural resource extraction, transportation and use, by focus on various concerns and feelings, with little regard for scientific facts and true expert opinon. I am shocked that a political science professor is asked for her “expertise” regarding fracking. Many statements in the “On Shaky Ground” piece are simplistic, out of date, and out of context.

In particular, the “concerns” about water usage and contamination are largely uninformed opinion that are not backed by facts. Expert work, led by Maurice Dusseault at U Waterloo, shows that the fracking process itself presents little danger to potable aquifers. Faulty or degraded wellbore containment systems (“casing”) in ALL wells, not just those that are fracked, present the greatest dangers – and must be systematically addressed.

A publication like U of T Magazine, aimed at intelligent, educated people, should be providing facts and expert interpretation to inform intelligent debate. We need to rise above name-calling and generally uninformed hysteria that characterizes mainstream media discussions.

# 8
Posted by Maro on January 1st, 2015 @ 6:02 pm

The risks and benefits of fracking will vary by location and maybe even with time.
So we should not close the door prematurely on fracking. We can disallow it when and where its risks exceed its benefits, but We may allow it where and when it is beneficial.

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