New Brunswick

Conservation Council doubts safety of shale gas industry

The Conservation Council of New Brunswick argues shale gas exploration is too risky for New Brunswick.

A series of special op-eds written on the shale gas industry

Stephanie Merrill is the fresh water program co-ordinator for the Conservation Council of New Brunswick.

Merrill also coordinates the Conservation Council's Shale Gas Alert Campaign

Merrill has worked on issues, such as shale gas, swetland conservation, and  collaborating with the Canadian Rivers Institute and World Wildlife Fund Canada on community outreach around the state of the St. John River. 

She has worked as a researcher at the University of New Brunswick and Mount Allison University.

David Coon is the executive director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick.

Coon is a 30-year veteran of the Canadian environmental movement. In the past, he has been the chair for the Canadian Climate Action Network, Canadian Environmental Network and as a director of Friends of the Earth Canada.

His work helped Conservation Council of New Brunswick win recognition from the United Nations Environment Programme and the Canadian Environmental Achievement Awards.

Almost two years ago, the Conservation Council learned the New Brunswick government intended to permit shale gas development across the province. At the time, we assumed that it could be done safely, if we enacted tough regulations and government had the political will and resources to enforce them.

However, since that time we have learned much and have come to the conclusion that shale gas development cannot be done safely. 

We learned that shale gas production has high greenhouse gas emissions – something we cannot afford in the desperate race to cut emissions to avoid catastrophic climate change. This is reason enough to leave it locked in the rock.

And we quickly learned that shale gas wells are not our grandfathers’ wells of old. Instead, they use a unique combination of technologies: "high-volume, horizontal, slickwater fracturing" on multi-well pads.

This combination of technologies has only been put in common use for about 10 years and has created many problems. 

We learned from the first-hand experiences from those victimized by shale gas development in the United States and Canada through, in essence, experimental use of these technologies. 

We visited affected communities and met with victims from all over the United States who described their water problems, their health problems, and the hell that their lives had become.

There is a growing body of scientific research on the negative consequences of shale gas development, which echoes the experience of people on the ground.

It is clear. This "extreme" source of fossil fuel cannot be safely extracted from beneath our communities.

Efforts to do so carry an untenable environmental footprint in terms of freshwater sustainability and threats to our drinking water, air quality, human health, and local and global climate.

Shale gas development has implications for our freshwater in a number of ways. 

The industry is extremely thirsty.

Apache Ltd., when working here in New Brunswick, reported to use four million litres of fresh water per frac job, multiplied by five fracs per well, multiplied by all the wells projected for the province.

Water concerns

This freshwater is then transformed to wastewater, which Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University reports virtually all returns to the surface over the life of the well. 

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection shows that no company is recycling 100 per cent of their wastewater, which means this toxic slurry has to be stored, handled, transported, treated and released back to the environment, or disposed of deep underground.

This begs the question of whether the use of freshwater, particularly drinking water, for an inherently contaminating process, to be lost to the water cycle, is an ethically sound decision.

Alleged drinking water contamination has plagued the industry most places it has set up shop. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that by 2008, there were 1,000 cases of water contamination across the country.

Though landowners have been unsuccessful in proving that fracking, or its related activities, is the culprit, researchers from Duke University published a paper last May in one of the most prestigious science journals in North America, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which found that drinking water wells in close proximity to shale gas drilling in Pennsylvania contained substantially higher levels of methane gas than those located further away.

The authors were able to trace the methane to deep earth sources where shale gas lies, and not shallow sources that may enter water wells more easily.

Hot on the heels of this research, the U.S. EPA released data just last week which found a chemical commonly found in frac fluids in the aquifers in Pavillion, Wyoming.

Prior to the Government of Quebec issuing a partial moratorium on shale gas this year, government inspectors determined that 19 of the 31 wells in the St. Lawrence Valley were leaking methane into the atmosphere – a powerful greenhouse gas.

Air quality concerns

While the impacts on air quality from areas intensely drilled have received less attention than water problems, that data is also starting to surface.

The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, a U.S. non-profit organization dedicated to studying human health, has identified airborne emissions at each stage of gas production, including volatile compounds such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene and methane which all contribute to producing ground-level ozone.

Air quality data in Wyoming, a largely rural and intensely drilled state, shows higher ground-level ozone than the City of Los Angeles. Ozone has been documented to travel over 300 kilometres from a well-field. 

Theo Colburn, professor emeritus at the University of Florida, has identified a menu of 353 chemicals from with industry chooses for their drilling and fracing processes in her recently peer-reviewed published paper in the International Journal of Human and Ecological Risk Assessment.

One of the largest gaps in our knowledge is in just how these chemicals impact our health. Colborn identified that 75 per cent of these chemicals can affect the skin, eyes, and other sensory organs, the respiratory system, the gastrointestinal system and the liver. Over half show effects in the brain and nervous system. 

A number of community-based studies are beginning to  make the connections between health drilling activities. For example, a community health survey in Dish, Texas reveals that over half of the maladies experienced by residents can be attributed to toxins identified in an earlier study of air quality associated with shale gas infrastructure.

A similar survey in Pavillion, Wyoming found that 94 per cent of participants reported health impacts that are known effects of chemicals associated with gas development, identified by the U.S. EPA in drinking water wells. Furthermore, 81 per cent reported respiratory ailments, suggesting an airborne pathway for toxins.

Jeopardizing emission targets

The negative impacts of shale gas development are not only documented and felt locally. According to a number of recent studies the development of shale gas will make it impossible to achieve our greenhouse gas emission targets. And Canada is already the seventh largest greenhouse gas emitter on the planet.

Mark Jaccard, an economist at Simon Fraser University, advised the British Columbia government that it could not meet its emission reduction targets unless it abandoned the development of shale gas or imposed a requirement for capturing and storing the resulting greenhouse gas emissions. 

This problem was reinforced by the Cornell study recently published in the journal Climate Science that says shale gas has a carbon footprint that rivals coal.

In New Brunswick, if shale gas were developed intensely in the next 10 years, our calculations suggest that our greenhouse gas emissions could increase by 20 per cent, rather than decrease by 10 per cent below 1990 levels Premier David Alward has committed to achieve by 2020.

The Suzuki Foundation, Pembina Institute and the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives have all recently published reports that shale gas is incapable of being a transition fuel from oil and coal to renewable energy.

Economics of shale gas

What about the economics of it all? Thomas Kinnaman, a researcher at Bucknell University, reviewed the existing shale gas economic literature and found that shale gas reserves were often overestimated leading to false projections of the economic impact. 

The review also found that data from Texas, Arkansas and Pennsylvania do not support the notion that shale gas extraction has increased populations or per-capita incomes. 

Susan Christopherson from Cornell University has examined the consequences of the boom and bust nature of shale gas development.

Christopherson has found that when the "bust" occurs, the population and jobs depart the region, leaving too few people to support the boomtown infrastructure. Communities can find themselves in a worse economic position then when they started. 

There has been no discussion about this shale gas strategy with the people of New Brunswick. Instead, we are essentially being told we must shoulder the burden of the impacts and risks associated with this "extreme energy" development in order to create new royalty revenue for the province.

The provincial government has been unrelenting in its focus on creating a "responsible shale gas industry," however it has steadfastly refused to acknowledge that rural communities and families will suffer the collateral damage. 

If all New Brunswickers had the opportunity to be part of a real, honest and meaningful dialogue about our province’s economic future, rather than being dismissed as "misinformed", "emotional" (read: irrational) or anti-development, perhaps government would come to understand that this is not the road New Brunswickers want to go down.

And perhaps, just perhaps we could develop our economy based on the strengths and ingenuity of our people and the ecologically sound development of our renewable resources.