New Brunswick

Hydro-fracking: Are we ready?

The recent controversy surrounding oil and gas exploration in the Sackville area has, rather suddenly and unexpectedly, catapulted the issue of hydraulic fracturing of natural gas to the forefront of New Brunswick politics.

Eleventh in a series of expert analysis articles on major issues in the 2010 N.B. election

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.

The recent controversy surrounding oil and gas exploration in the Sackville area has, rather suddenly and unexpectedly, catapulted the issue of hydraulic fracturing of natural gas to the forefront of New Brunswick politics.

Hydraulic fracturing or "hydro-fracking" is a relatively novel form of gas extraction that involves the injection of a mixture of water, sand and chemicals under high pressure to create cracks or fissures in shale rock formations deep underground.

Such fracturing facilitates the release of previously trapped methane gas deposits that are subsequently collected and extracted through the original drill bore.

Unknown risks

Government and industry assurances that there are no proven risks associated with hydro-fracking miss a critical point: the deployment of this technology is relatively new and potential environment and health effects have simply not yet been carefully evaluated.

In fact, in a troubling demonstration of the former U.S. administration of George W. Bush's unwavering allegiance to oil and gas industry interests, hydro-fracking was given exemption in 2005 from U.S. federal air and clean water regulations, just as the technology was poised to take-off in the United States.

This is a major reason why so little formal assessment has been done on the impacts of hydro-fracking.

In terms of health and environmental risk, hydro-fracking differs from conventional oil and gas drilling in key respects.

First, the process of hydro-fracking entails the injection under high pressure of huge volumes of fresh water underground. This creates both source challenges (where will all this water come from?) and recovery challenges (what happens to it all after being used?).

Second, a variety of chemicals, including many known toxins, are mixed with the injected water to catalyze the fracturing of underground shale and the release of methane deposits.

It is not clear how much of this chemically-contaminated solution is ultimately recovered after use and removed off-site for proper treatment or how much remains within the bore hole and underground fractures.

It is also not clear whether these chemicals may, under certain circumstances, migrate through underground fractures or escape containment near the surface and subsequently contaminate water sources.

Finally, the process of underground fracturing and the release of natural gas may provide, in some circumstances, opportunities for contamination of ground water by methane.

U.S. problems

Thus far, most of the evidence that such effects are real is based on anecdotal reporting, but it is quickly mounting and increasingly compelling.

For example, there are now hundreds of documented cases in the United States (plus a small number in Canada) of residents living close to hydro-fracking sites who claim the activity is polluting local surface or ground water, or otherwise causing unacceptable levels of habitat damage and nuisance (e.g., noxious odors, noise disturbance from truck traffic, etc.).

In the absence of effective past monitoring and regulatory oversight, it is difficult to assess the validity of the many claims of health and environmental damage. But recent political developments suggest that others are now taking these risks seriously. 

For example, U.S. federal authorities investigating concerns raised by residents in Pavilion, Wyoming, have now confirmed high rates of well-water contamination by methane and other chemicals that appear to have originated from nearby hydro-fracking activities.

According to a just-published article by Propublica, residents of Pavilion have been advised by authorities to avoid drinking locally-sourced water and to properly vent their homes while washing clothes and showering to disperse volatile chemicals that may be out-gassed from their water.

Similarly, regulators in New York are now sufficiently concerned about the risks that the state government there has passed a moratorium against further hydro-fracking until such risks are better understood. The nearby State of Pennsylvania may likewise soon follow with much stricter regulations and possibly moratoriums on further development. 

Regulatory questions

Given these developments, it is difficult not to conclude that the government of New Brunswick has little idea what it is dealing with when it insists, as it has repeatedly done so, that there are no health or environmental risks associated with hydro-fracking.

Our government's credibility is further strained by repeated assurances that an effective regulatory framework is already in place to deal with hydro-fracking. But, what "regulatory framework" is the government talking about?

The government is presumably referring to the New Brunswick Oil & Gas Act, which guides exploration and development in this sector across the province.

But the Oil & Gas Act was last updated in 2000, before hydro-fracking had even entered New Brunswick. Likewise, existing provincial Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Clean Environment Act regulations might be applicable to hydro-fracking operations, at least in some cases.

However, the general problem remains: existing laws and regulations are simply ill-equipped to deal with the kinds of novel risks, as outlined above, that are unique to hydro-fracking.

Recent experiences in Sackville provide a disturbing glimpse of just how ill-prepared the government of New Brunswick appears to be on-the-ground with this issue.

Briefly, government regulators displayed a lack of knowledge about potential risk factors and emerging political developments related to these in the United States.

Instead, they relied-pretty much exclusively on industry-sourced information from which to form their opinion that hydro-fracking poses no risks.

Furthermore, it was revealed that baseline testing of wells and water systems is treated as the responsibility of industry, not the actual provincial regulator. Yet, industry appears to have considerable discretion as to whether or not it will even share water testing results with the town.

Council was understandably alarmed by this given the town's responsibility for assuring safe drinking water to its residents. 

Moving Forward

A basic adherence to the precautionary principle in this case should commit governments to putting in place a proper regulatory framework and safe-guards specific to hydro-fracking, and to otherwise take a go-slow approach in development until the nature of the risks are better understood.

In this regard, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is currently conducting an in-depth analysis of the health and environmental risks associated with hydro-fracking.

To my knowledge, this represents the first-ever comprehensive, independent evaluation of the risks of hydro-fracking technology. Responsible regulators across North America will be anxiously awaiting the results of this study.  

In the meantime, a full-scale moratorium on further hydro-fracking would be justified. But if not a full moratorium, then at a minimum it would be wise to ban hydro-fracking from lands that serve as significant sources of drinking water for New Brunswick communities.

Actual drill sites should also not be permitted in close proximity to residential dwellings, ground water well sites or livestock operations. And all baseline and subsequent water testing results should be made freely available to local governments and the public at large.

We may eventually learn that hydro-fracking poses few and acceptable risks to our health and the environment in the vast majority of cases. But encouraging widespread deployment of this technology before gaining a better understanding of the nature of these risks strikes me as an irresponsible approach.