A recent Environics poll found that most Canadians (62%) support a moratorium on the use of “fracking” or hydraulic fracturing as a way to extract natural gas. Support for such a moratorium was higher (64%) in this province. Why is the opposition to fracking growing so quickly here and elsewhere?
Hydraulic fracturing involves the pumping of vast amounts of water, up 7 million gallons, with sand laced with huge amounts of toxic chemicals, into shale rock containing natural gas. This is pumped under very high pressure, as high as 9,000 pounds per square inch to create fractures. The gas is then extracted through the fracking well.
Industry has steadfastly resisted public health pressure to release information on the toxic chemicals used in their fracking. Calling this a “trade secret”, they appear indifferent to the implications for environmental health. This is a classic example of the planet-wide battle between corporate “property rights” and the quest for sustainability and protection of the commons.
We now know that the chemicals used can include Chorine, Benzene, Glycol, Ethers, Methanol, Naphthalene and Tetramethylammonium . Some have been linked to cancer or can harm our blood, cardiovascular and nervous systems. The amount of toxic chemicals used in one fracking operation can be over 200,000 litres, which is cause for great environmental concern. These chemicals also endanger the habitats of other creatures.
Some researchers believe fracking is an assault on future generations, on sustainability itself. You might wish to read Bill McKibben’s piece, Why Not Frack?, in the March 8, 2012 New York Review of Books. Also a book by Tom Wilber, Under The Surface, has just been published by Cornell University Press.
Due to these threats, fracking has already been banned in Quebec. The U.S. state of Vermont has also banned fracking due to many negative environmental health effects. The United Kingdom and an area in Arkansas, USA, have suspended fracking because it’s been linked to minor tremors.
The US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) first thorough study of the impact of fracking on water quality was done in a Wyoming town near many fracking operations. It concluded that there was “direct mixing of fracking fluids with ground water”, which led to an order to stop using well water.
The fracking fractures also allow underground methane to contaminate drinking water sources. This has resulted in tap water that burns when lit, as shown in the documentaries Gasland and Burning Water and the U-Tube film The Sky is Pink.
Further, the injected chemical-laced water doesn’t all stay underground. When some is “regurgitated” back to the earth’s surface it brings the toxic chemicals with it. It also brings toxic elements previously trapped in the shale rock. Oil traces, chromium, radium and a lot of salt can get into streams and rivers. U.S. environmental journalist Ian Urbina has revealed that radioactivity is also being brought to the earth’s surface by fracking.
The toxic fumes coming from the fracking wells also pollute air. Due to the thousands of wells allowed in Wyoming, the state no longer meets federal air quality standards. (Albertans already know what the oil and gas industry can do to air quality; Saskatchewan people are starting to catch on.) Fracking is now also being linked to earthquakes. Ohio officials believe that a 4 point 2011 earthquake likely resulted from the multitude of deep injection wells. Arnansas and Oklahoma also report tremors from fracking. The U.S.’s National Research Council has concluded that storing carbon underground (carbon capture) can also trigger earthquakes.
ASSAULT ON UNDERGROUND
Industry and pro-corporate governments which are neglecting environmental protection are treating the underground with the same disrespect that has been shown towards the atmosphere and oceans. Rather than make the shift towards sustainable energy, the fossil fuel industry is trying to preserve its profitable market by promoting underground carbon capture, used to enhance oil recovery, and the use of fracking to retrieve more natural gas from underground.
Meanwhile the U.S. is facing leaks from its nearly 700,000 waste and injection sites. As David Suzuki reported in the last R-Town, from 2007 to 2012 there was one well integrity violation “issued for every six deep injection wells examined”, which amounted to 17,000 violations in the U.S. “More than 7,000 wells showed signs that their walls were leaking”, he noted.
The Harper government is quickly proving to be hostile to scientific evidence. Under Harper, Canada is quickly following the same path, treating the underground as a new dump site for the fossil fuel industry, as well as the nuclear industry. Harper and Alberta have partnered with large corporations like Enbridge to develop carbon capture. Suzuki reminds us that such government-corporate partnerships will leave the Alberta taxpayers liable for any contamination that results, another example of “privatized profits and socialized costs.” The Sask Party government has partnered with SNC-Lavalin to do carbon capture.
The natural gas industry promotes itself as a more environmentally friendly energy than the other fossil fuels, coal and oil. While it’s true that the burning of natural gas produces one-half the greenhouse gases as CO2, natural gas itself (CH2) is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. Don’t be fooled by the “natural” in natural gas. Water is “natural”, too, but it can lead to deadly flooding and landslides. Fracking can compound climate change. The U.S.’s National Centre for Atmospheric Research says a switch to natural gas “would do little to solve the climate problem.” The same has been found with nuclear energy, which is no “quick fix”, and as Fukushima shows, carries major environmental dangers.
The push for natural gas is no solution to the challenge of sustainability. The longer we take to make the full conversion to renewables the more toxic we’ll leave the earth for future generations. And Saskatchewan is not only falling behind on renewables but is at the front of the pack expanding non-sustainable energy sources. Fracking, along with exploration for heavy oil and expansion of uranium mining are all on the upswing. Without regard for what’s happening elsewhere, the assault on the underground continues.
There have been 114,000 wells drilled in Saskatchewan, over 36,000 of which have employed hydraulic fracking. According to petroleum and gas data from the Saskatchewan Ministry of the Economy, 584 wells have been drilled in the Wascana and Upper Qu’Appelle Watersheds. Most (350) were potash wells. Eight others involved hydraulic fracturing. Five of these were drilled since 2004 and all of these were gas wells drilled near Raymore, Duval, Penzance, Simpson and Belle Plain, most near Last Mountain Lake. According to Council of Canadian information from the Petroleum Services Association, by 2010 there had been nearly 3,000 wells fracked in the Bakken gas fields in southern Saskatchewan, near communities like Rocanville, Viewfield, Ceylon, Hummingbird and Roncott. This is occurring without firm knowledge about the impacts on the large aquifers, chain of lakes and groundwater that we, as inland-prairie people, so depend on.
WHY BAN FRACKING?
It’s time to alert the wider public about the hazards of fracking, before the Sask Party government expands this practice and we end up in the situation of a U.S. state like Wyoming, which has allowed thousands of fracking wells and is now suffering from air and water contamination.
A ban on fracking will protect valuable future water sources and our children’s health; it will encourage us to move more quickly towards sustainable energy sources. It will encourage us to shift from economic activity based on extracting toxic non-renewables to a more balanced economy.
Can the substantial and growing public opinion calling for a ban on fracking get any political traction? Will the opposition NDP pick up on this growing public concern? What will it take to get politicians to not only look at short-term money and profit but to consider the bigger picture? What will it take to put morality and concern for the future back into politics?
My thanks to Regina’s “Making Peace Vigil” for some of the research used in this piece.