University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine
A drill on the horizon, fracking.
Photo from iStock
Culture & Society

On Shaky Ground

How should we evaluate the risks and benefits of fracking?

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? 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?

Recent Posts