ConocoPhillips fracking op south of Norman Wells

A ConocoPhillips fracking operation south of Norman Wells, N.W.T. (ConocoPhillips)

A director of the Pembina Institute in Edmonton says a new report on the risks of shale gas development validates northerners’ concerns about fracking, and points out the importance of public consultation.

The report released this week by the Council of Canadian Academies was commissioned by the former federal environment minister two years ago because of growing health and environmental concerns about fracking.

In it, a group of North America’s top scientists advocate a go-slow approach and says industry and government need to know more about the long-term effects and environmental impacts of fracking before allowing projects to go ahead.

"People have been saying exactly this," says Pembina's Duncan Kenyon. "And it's not even necessarily people saying, 'No, don't you dare ever do shale gas in my backyard.’ It's actually people just saying, 'Whoa, let's think about this because we don't really know what's going on.’

“This report ties it all in a bow and says yes, in fact, we don't really know a lot of the impacts on this development."

Kenyon says the report also calls for strong public engagement as projects move forward.

"There have been some challenges in other jurisdictions where they've just kind of rolled in and checked the box for local engagement, but they never really asked locals and local communities,” he says.

Kenyon says local engagement is especially important in the North, where projects can have a large impact on traditional land.

He notes that communities and aboriginal groups often have different ideas about what it means to consult, and that’s just one thing that needs to be made clear as more fracking projects are proposed.

Elder afraid for youth

Some people in the Sahtu region of the Northwest Territories say the report confirms their fears about fracking.

David Etchinelle, an elder who's lived in Tulita, N.W.T., his whole life, says companies interested in fracking near his community have consulted with leadership in his community, but not the general public. 

Ethcinelle says that makes it hard for him to trust any new developments. 

"I'm really not happy about it and … I hope they let people know how it's working. They're using so much water, but I think they're using more than what they're saying."

Etchinelle says his fears though, are mostly for the youth in his community, who will inherit the potential problems that come with fracking. 

"My young people are in a black pitch. They don't know where they're going. We'll have to try so hard for them to work with that kind of stuff."

This winter, ConocoPhillips was the first company to start fracking in the Sahtu region of the Northwest Territories. 

The company is now seeking to expand that program

A proposal by Husky Energy to drill and frack four wells in the same region has drawn considerable controversy

'Environmental impacts... not typically anticipated'

The report found that so little is known about the long-term impacts of extracting gas by fracturing rock beds with high-pressure fluids that scientists and regulators need to start now to understand how to develop the resource safely and cleanly, said co-author Rick Chalaturnyk, an engineering professor at the University of Alberta.

It also warns against being blinded by the lure of big bucks.

"The lessons provided by the history of science and technology concerning all major energy sources and many other industrial initiatives show that substantial environmental impacts were typically not anticipated," the report says.

"What is perhaps more alarming is that where substantial adverse impacts were anticipated, these concerns were dismissed or ignored by those who embraced the expected positive benefits of the economic activities that produced those impacts."

With files from The Canadian Press