B.C.'s multi-billion-dollar shale gas industry is booming — but critics argue its controversial drilling practice known as fracking contaminates groundwater, boosts greenhouse gas emissions and threatens the health of those who live nearby.

This week, CBC News is looking at the promise and potential pitfalls of the province's shale gas boom in Cornering Gas, a series produced by CBC Radio One in British Columbia.

"Shale gas is a game-changer," said Kerry Guy with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

"The two most significant shale gas [deposits] in Canada are both in northeast B.C. We now find ourselves with accessible resources that we think can be economically recovered that are more than 100 years of supply [at current demand]."

But the industry is using a controversial practice called hydraulic fracking or hydro-fracking to extract the natural gas from the shale rock formations and coal beds.

Fracking involves injecting a pressurized mix of water and other substances into the rock to release the trapped natural gas.

The process has been banned in several jurisdictions, including New York and France, but in British Columbia — where huge deposits of shale gas are found in the northeastern part of the province —  the practice is moving full steam ahead.

Northeastern B.C. boomtown

North Peace MLA Pat Pimm predicts Fort Nelson, B.C. — a town with just one traffic light and about 4,000 residents — will triple in size as the shale gas boom continues.

Thousands of workers have descended on the region to build roads, camps, pipelines and gas plants to serve hundreds of new wells.

"It really is truly very busy up here," says Pimm. "The natural gas, the fracking, the heavy vehicles — it's very busy. It's a whole new game."

Many of the workers commute to their jobs in wilderness work camps near Fort Nelson on charter flights from Kelowna, Comox, and Vancouver.

John Rattinc, a pipefitter supervisor from Ladysmith who works at a gas plant outside Fort Nelson, is one of the thousands of workers who catch the regular flights up from the cities in the south.

"I don't necessarily enjoy the commute, but it's a way of making  a living," he said. "The people are a special breed to come so far away from home."

Rattinc said there are few employment options back home in Ladysmith.

"[There's] nothing — no forestry — pulp and paper is down to nothing. No, this is a lot better than working at McDonald's or Tim Hortons."

Workers like Rattinc work long days for two weeks straight, eating and sleeping at all-inclusive work camps. And because there is steady work, living at the work camps has become a way of life for many.

The boom — which some say is turning Fort Nelson into B.C.'s own Fort McMurray — is expected to last for the next two decades as B.C.'s shale gas industry continues to expand.

The expansion is backed by B.C. Premier Christy Clark, who insists the industry is safe and poses little risk to the environment.

Environmental concerns

  • The process uses large amounts of fresh water.
  • The waste water must be treated at facilities that critics say are not always equipped to remove the contaminants.
  • The chemicals used during fracking can contaminate groundwater.
  • Some people living near fracking wells have complained of noxious fumes they say cause headaches and other symptoms.
  • Researchers say fracking causes enough emissions to give it a bigger greenhouse gas footprint than conventional gas or oil.

"It is time to show everyone how safely this business is done," Clark said in a recent interview. "The province feels very strongly that fracking is safely regulated in British Columbia."

Conservative Environment Minister Peter Kent also believes fracking is safe, but last week launched a scientific review.

Calling for a moratorium

Critics and environmentalists fear there are hidden costs behind the practice, and are calling for a moratorium until the science is in.

"It's responsible and good government to know what you're doing before you start blowing things up way underground," said Alberta's NDP environment critic Rachel Notley.

Organic farmer Tim Ewert, whose farm near Dawson Creek, B.C., is surrounded by gas wells and fracking, also wants the drilling to stop.

"If there's a big well being flared, you can hear it for miles," he said. "It sounds like a jet taking off, the ground sort of shaking a little bit, our windows rattling."

But the science is already good enough for Canada's energy companies and most provincial politicians, who insist fracking is safe.

With files from the CBC's Betsy Trumpener, Robert Doane