Canadian National Farmers Union warns against fracking January 31, 2014, National Farmers Union in Fracking, Shale Gas and Health
There are shale gas or coal bed methane formations in northern BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, which lie mostly beneath farmland. It should be no surprise, therefore, that at the 2012 National Convention, the National Farmers Union (NFU) resolved to call on governments to implement a series of recommended regulations regarding hydraulic fracturing (fracking). In March 2013, the NFU submitted a response to Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board’s (ERCB) request for public input about its proposed new regulatory framework to deal with unconventional oil and gas development.
Fracking is a process to extract oil and/or natural gas (including coal bed methane) by injecting water containing various chemicals at high enough pressures to crack the coal, shale or rock. A “proppant” such as sand is mixed with the fluid to keep cracks open after the pressure is reduced. Keeping fractures (cracks) open allows gas and/or oil to flow into the wellbore to be pumped out. Hydraulic fracturing requires a lot of heavy equipment: compressors, fluid tankers, proppant trucks, mixing tanks and an operations trailer in addition to the drilling rig.
Since 1949, fracking has evolved to the point that companies can now sequentially frack portions of a horizontal well – a process called multistage fracking. As easy-to-get oil and gas reserves were depleted, the new techniques made fracking attractive for the energy industry, which invested in massive and rapid expansion of fracking infrastructure.
Fracking is highly controversial for environmental, economic and social reasons. Concerns about water use and pollution and climate change dominate the environmental conversation. Fracking requires millions of gallons of water. Some of the water is re-used, but all of it is contaminated. Water used to pressurize wells has chemicals added, including acids, biocides, gelling agents, rust-inhibitors, petroleum products, etc. Exact formulations are considered trade secrets and not open to public scrutiny. The produced water (water that comes out with the gas and/or oil) contains other toxic chemicals that have been leached from the under-ground formation over millennia, such as salts, metals and naturally occurring radioactive material.
Groundwater can be polluted if casings fail or new cracks in the bedrock open between the fracking zone and freshwater aquifers. Jessica Ernst, an Albertan who lives near a coal bed methane development and whose well water can now be lit on fire, is taking EnCana [and Alberta Government] and the ERCB to court over fracking-induced contamination. She has documented high levels of [methane] in her water. Water not re-used for fracking and produced water must be disposed of, generally by pumping it into deep underground formations, a process that can also cause earthquakes.
The water will never be available to the ecosystem again. Moreover, ecosystem pollution is a risk should it be improperly disposed of or if there is a geological event that changes bedrock formations.
CO2 will burden the atmosphere
More CO2 and methane will burden the atmosphere – from flaring or gaseous emissions at the wellhead, or by burning oil and natural gas extracted by fracking. Methane (natural gas) is an even more potent greenhouse gas (GHG) than CO2. GHG emissions from fracking are due not only to burning end products, but also to the energy required to transport materials, pump and pressurize fluids, and to manufacture equipment. Oil and gas industries dominate Alberta’s and Saskatchewan’s economies, and are responsible for much of these two provinces’ extra-large environmental footprint.
Some commentators suggest the shale gas boom will turn out to be another economic bubble. Wells are expensive to develop and their production declines rapidly. If they are depleted faster than expected, the company loses large sums of money. To keep ahead of financial trouble, companies need to keep total production up so they bring on new wells ever more quickly. Meanwhile, natural gas supply has exceeded demand, dropping the price. To make at least the same amount of money, companies drill more wells, and take short-cuts to reduce costs in a mad race to keep ahead of their debts. The result? New wells that permanently scar the landscape, destabilize the bedrock and pollute the water.
Negative social impacts of fracking occur when those who make the decisions and reap the benefits are not the same people who bear the risks and costs. Alberta’s proposed regulatory approach is “risk-based.” Oil and gas companies, along with the regulator, decide upon acceptable levels of risk and act accordingly. Meanwhile, the people who have no part in decision-making are left to deal with the problems caused by the risk-taking of others.
A community’s social fabric can be damaged by the combination of a sudden increase in the number of transient oil and gas workers and a simultaneous labour shortage in the non-energy based local economy. Intergenerational justice is also compromised; instead of creating a foundation for our children into the future, fracking uses non-renewable energy sources at break-neck speed. Many commentators also express concern about the danger of a “petro-state” emerging in Canada, where oil money has a greater influence over public policy than does the citizenry.
Noise, dust, traffic, and damage
Alberta farmers who live near fracking installations lose the peace, quiet and beauty of their countryside. There is more noise, dust, light pollution, air pollution, traffic on and damage to country roads, damage to fields, loss of productive acres, interference with wildlife habitat, loss of recreation opportunities, potential water shortages, chemical spills on farmland and into surface waters, and reduction in property values. It is more time-consuming and costly to work land that is criss-crossed by fracking infrastructure. Emissions from wells and equipment may be hazardous to the health of people and animals. There is ever-present worry about the danger of irreversible contamination of groundwater and the resulting loss of wells for watering livestock, irrigating crops and domestic consumption.
Perhaps even more offensive than the tangible burdens that fracking imposes on farmers, are the attempts to silence and intimidate concerned rural citizens. The ERCB has a history of limiting access to its hearings by defining “affected party” very narrowly, thus denying voice to many who have legitimate concerns.
The NFU submission to the ERCB is framed by our call that its new regulatory approach be guided by the Precautionary Principle, “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation,” as Canada agreed to in the 1992 Rio Declaration.
The NFU document focuses on four broad aspects of the proposed regulatory framework: its guiding principles, the role of the regulator, the proposed outcomes of regulation and the ERCB’s public engagement process. The document has also been sent to the Environment and Agriculture ministers of each province, as we recognize that fracking issues and our concerns are not limited to Alberta.
First published in Union Farmer Newsletter Volume 61 Issue 2 (April 2013). Subheadings have been added.
The National Farmers Union’s “Submission to Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) Consultation on the Proposed Regulatory Approach for Unconventional Oil and Gas Development” is available at http://www.nfu.ca/story/submission-ercb-fracking-regulation.
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