Fracking Review

The panel reviewing Hydraulic Fracturing for Nova Scotia has made a good beginning. Its first report is a Primer that lays out simple factual responses to many of the questions that people have about the process.

For some this is an emotionally charged issue. The province received 279 comments at the time the panel was created. Some urged the panel to investigate particular issues but most already have their minds made up. Citing the same two or three academic resources they urge a more or less permanent ban. It is unlikely that any set of facts will change the minds of this determined contingent.

Hopefully the rest of the province will maintain an open mind as the panel continues its work.

Hydraulic fracturing results in the opening of existing natural fractures and the creation of new fractures within a rock formation, typically by pumping large quantities of fluids down a well at high pressure .This facilitates recovery of oil and gas in the shale.

The report tells us that fracking has been done for more than 60 years and that perhaps 2.5 million wells have been fracked worldwide, of which 1 million in the US. Most of the 200,000 Canadian wells have been in Alberta but there are growing numbers in the other western provinces.

The industry likes to point to this long history, but most of it did not involve the recently developed techniques that have hugely expanded access to oil and gas reserves.

The new technologies use horizontal drilling from the bottom of the initial shaft. Sand and some chemicals are added to the water to keep fractures open, prevent corrosion, and facilitate movement. Injection pressures have increased.

These techniques have only become available in the last decade, and it is the experiences of those years that are most instructive about the opportunities and risks in the future.

Positions expressed by both advocates and opponents of fracking will provide readers with a heavily biased view of what is really happening.

For example some industry players assert that “…1.2 million wells across the U.S. have been fracked by the oil and gas industry without a single verified or documented instance of harm to groundwater.” Not only does this contradict numerous anecdotal reports from opponents. It also is statistically improbable, for example, that not one of those wells would have faulty seals, allowing leakage or spillage of fluids. And it sidesteps the problem of fluid disposal after use.

Correspondingly, opponents like to cite individual events, but not to talk about the very low percentage of wells causing problems, or that the chemicals in the fluids are heavily diluted.

Opponents often argue the possibility that fracking will cause earthquakes. In fact there were a couple in Ohio earlier this month which may have been associated with fracking. It hardly made the news, nor did earlier ones in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and other states. That is because they were small and did no damage. Tremors of that magnitude occur naturally thousands of times per year.

Industry seeks to trivialize the subject by calling these micro-seismic events.

Industry asserts that regulation has been effective. Opponents in the US wonder. “How can fracking be regulated when the chemicals used are not even disclosed?” The panel’s report tells us that in Canada regulators are actively moving to full disclosure.

Academics from distinguished universities like Cornell (lots of methane is released into the atmosphere during fracking) and MIT ( no it isn’t) differ sharply on some key questions.

It was thus wise of the panel to begin with a simple and accessible explanation of the basics. Future papers are planned to examine well-bore integrity, geological issues, resources and reserves, environmental impacts, economics, and health implications.

Each will depend heavily on research by others so the authors will need to work hard to separate facts from bias.

Nevertheless to reach conclusions the panel, and ultimately the government, will have to make some value judgements.

  1. All energy-related industries, including wind and solar, leave some kind of footprint. What is an acceptable environmental footprint during drilling and what kind of remediation should be required? How should affected homeowners and communities be compensated?
  2. It is not possible to make any activity 100% safe. What is an acceptable level of risk? How should homeowners and communities be compensated if there are adverse outcomes?
  3. Quality of regulation matters. Regulatory practices have evolved unevenly as technologies have developed. What must government do to keep regulatory practice up-to-date and adequately resourced?
  4. What is a reasonable structure for royalties in comparison with other jurisdictions?

Fracking has provided extraordinary economic benefits in the United States and Western Canada, and has contributed to greenhouse gas reductions as coal-fired generation is replaced. It has potential to be one of the instruments of revival called for by the Ivany report.

But it also can have adverse environmental impacts, particularly where regulatory practice is weak.

Governments in Nova Scotia have avoided dealing with this issue for far too long. The panel has taken a good first step in getting us to a conclusion.


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