Monday, March 21, 2011

Fracking Needs To Be Considered With Caution

Interest in onshore natural gas deposits is growing in Nova Scotia, following a trend which has spread across North America.  In the United States, it’s estimated the oil and gas industry has committed more than $70 billion on shale gas plays.

Natural gas has an important role in Nova Scotia’s energy future.  Cleaner burning than coal and oil, it is at best a balancing energy source to wind and tidal power.  At worst, it is a transitional fuel on the road to completely renewable energy sources.  Shale gas offers many opportunities for Nova Scotia from jobs to a royalty injection to government coffers.  But without proper monitoring and regulation, what could be an opportunity may become a setback for generations to come.

As the possibility of drilling in Nova Scotia for shale gas becomes more likely, concerns and questions are being raised about the process of removing gas from the ground, particularly the use of high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”

While some have brushed off these concerns, in light of silence by Nova Scotia’s NDP government on fracking both during questioning in the legislature and publicly, Nova Scotians are understandably concerned.  Roughly 90% of shale gas deposits are exploited using fracking, so the odds are good that fracking would be part of the drilling mix in this province.  The history of this process in the US is mixed (at best) and increasingly, scientists are expressing concern over issues associated with the process.

It’s important to understand why concerns exist.  The fracking process involves pumping water, sand and chemicals at high pressure, thousands of feet underground, to break apart shale to release natural gas.  Much of the concern, whether in waste disposal or the actual process, relates to the secrecy around chemicals used in the fracking process.  The government must ensure the public knows exactly what chemicals are used. This is an issue which was recently raised in the US congress.

US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was quoted by Reuters as saying “We’re going to have a huge backlash from the American public if we continue to inject chemicals and fluids into the ground without people knowing what it is that’s being injected.”

While the industry, to its credit, has improved the recycling of wastewater, ultimately a cocktail of salts, benzene, and radioactive elements is left behind by this process.  In multiple US states there have been reports of the wastewater entering the rivers and lakes through spills.  In some locations, fracking fluids have been trucked to sewage treatment plants ill equipped to handle the waste.  There are also concerns about the quantities of water used in the process as well as its impact on wells which provide domestic water.

A major New York Times investigation found that both the drilling industry and the Environmental Protection Agency have concerns over whether wastewater is ultimately diluted sufficiently for public safety.  The Times stated they “found never-reported studies by the EPA and a confidential study by the drilling industry that all concluded that radioactivity in drilling waste cannot be fully diluted in rivers and other waterways.”

Furthermore, while some people have recently suggested that concerns over fracking are unwarranted, in fact “thousands of internal documents obtained by the New York Times from the Environmental Protection Agency , state regulators and drillers show that the dangers to the environment and health are greater than previously understood.”

None of this is to suggest that drilling and exploring for shale gas in Nova Scotia or elsewhere cannot be done safely.  However these resources belong to Nova Scotians and Nova Scotians must be the primary beneficiaries, not the victims of a poorly regulated process.  The shale gas resource is not going anywhere, and as the price of natural gas rises, the value to Nova Scotia will also rise.  There is time to ensure that appropriate regulations are in place.

Nova Scotia has an opportunity to be a leader in shale gas exploration.  To enjoy the benefits of gas exploration, we must ensure the environment and health of Nova Scotians are not damaged.  The NDP government must begin consultations with industry and the public to ensure that regulations are ahead of industry and that fracking (if it’s to be done) happens in a safe manner which protects the health of our residents and ground water supplies.

It is also vital that the government be seen to be open to all views on this issue. This is not the case in parts of Cape Breton where provincial officials and an exploration company are perceived to be working together, rather than one regulating the other. To regain credibility, government must do the hard work of hearing all views and researching them as Nova Scotia makes the rules for how our resources will be used.