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Brad Walters is a professor of geography and environmental studies at Mount Allison University.

He is internationally recognized as a scholar on the human dimensions of environmental change.

Walters has authored two edited books and more than 40 published articles in his field of expertise.

He teaches about environmental policy issues, climate change and the inter-relations between economic development and environmental protection.

I was first invited by the CBC to prepare a short essay on shale gas development about one year ago. Concerns about risks were only just coming to light then, so I advised a go-slow approach.

My views on the matter have since hardened in light of scientific and political developments. A complete ban on shale gas development is warranted.

In short, the costs of development are large, the risks potentially much larger, and the government appears not up to the task of protecting the public interest should inevitable problems emerge.

Various independent analyses are unanimous in their concern about the lack of good information on the health and environmental risks of shale gas development, in particular the use of hydraulic fracturing.# That said, here is what we do know:

  • Significant shale gas development industrializes rural landscapes, with construction of extensive road and pipeline networks, development of multiple well-pad sites and processing facilities, and massive increases in truck traffic and noise.
  • Gas wells and related processing facilities release substantial amounts of noxious air pollutants, including volatile organic compounds like methane and benzene.
  • Millions of gallons of water are required to "frack" individual gas wells. This water is mixed with sand and various chemicals, including known neurotoxins and carcinogens. Some of this mixture remains underground following fracking. The remainder flows back to the surface where it is hopefully recovered and properly treated.
  • Frack water returning to the surface has been found in some places in the United States to contain radio-active contamination, liberated from deep underground. 
  • Activities related to hydraulic fracturing have caused earthquakes in the United States and United Kingdom, although these seismic events have so far caused little damage.

Uncertain Risks

The risks posed to fresh water by hydro-fracking are the least well understood, yet typically garner the most public concern.

Across North America, there have been thousands of claims of water pollution, and hundreds of confirmed cases, albeit many of these are related to surface spills and contamination.

There is a disturbing lack of basic research on the question of whether hydro-fracking causes groundwater pollution. Recent studies by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and independent scientists confirm that it can, but big uncertainties remain.

For example, pollution may result from cracks in gas well casings at shallow depths below ground rather than from deep fissures that originate within shale deposits. Either way, there is no scientific basis to the industry refrain that fracking has not caused ground water pollution.

Another major uncertainty concerns greenhouse gas emissions from shale gas. Advocates often claim that natural gas is a climate-friendly fuel compared to coal.

There is some truth to this given a raw comparison of emissions produced per unit of energy generated from coal versus gas. But, this story gets complicated when factoring in the entire production cycle of shale gas extraction and processing and, in particular, the many intentional and unintentional releases of methane that occur.

Methane (natural gas) is a particularly potent greenhouse gas, so releases add hugely to the climate impact of shale gas, so much so that recent studies have estimated it to be little or no better than coal from a climate perspective.

Shale gas may also undercut efforts to promote genuinely low-emission alternatives. The current boom in shale gas production has produced a glut in supply, resulting in lower gas prices. This discourages development of relatively more expensive renewable sources like wind, solar and geothermal.

Whatever short-term benefits may accrue from having cheaper energy courtesy of abundant natural gas, we must not let this distract us from the far more critical priority of de-carbonizing our energy infrastructure.

Who is Minding the Store?

The government of New Brunswick has demonstrated a remarkable indifference to the aforementioned concerns.

Time and again, officials have repeated industry talking points about the safety and economic benefits of shale gas, and have given short-shrift to peoples’ concerns about risks and costs.

The province’s capacity to effectively implement its environmental laws is already stretched and, in recent months, its authority has been weakened by changes to the wetlands conservation policy and further hesitation on legally implementing surface water classification of many New Brunswick watersheds.

Given this, can we really expect the province to be up to the job of regulating a technically complex and potentially huge new industry like shale gas?

Whatever claims are made, it is inevitable that most of the onerous regulatory tasks associated with shale gas development, including baseline monitoring and water testing, will fall into industry hands. The oil and gas industry’s track record to date has left me with little confidence.

Both here in Canada and abroad, it has not demonstrated a willingness to protect public interest at the expense of its bottom line.

The case of Penobsquis, the first community in New Brunswick to have shale gas development, is instructive.

The people of this rural farming community have been subject to a litany of industrial insults and have experienced loss of well water, land subsidence, contaminated frack water spills, incessant noise, and sharply declining property values. Yet, they have been left largely to fend for themselves against the combined industrial onslaught of potash mining and shale gas development.

The experience of Penobsquis should make one skeptical of government assurances that the public interest is being given adequate priority in planning for shale gas development.

With 20 per cent of the province under exploration leases for shale gas, dozens of towns and small communities could eventually face Penobsquis-like scenarios. This is a deeply troubling prospect.