‘Democracies die without uncomfortable truth-seekers like Jessica Ernst, how could you not like a story like this?’ Nikiforuk by Kate Malloy, March 28, 2016, The Hill Times
Andrew Nikiforuk talks about his book, Slick Water: Fracking and One Insider’s Stand Against the World’s Most Powerful Industry, which has been nominated as one of this year’s top five best political books.
Andrew Nikiforuk says he was surprised his book was nominated for this year’s Writers’ Trust’s Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. One of the top five best political books of the year, Slick Water: Fracking and One Insider’s Stand Against the World’s Most Powerful Industry, is about Albertan Jessica Ernst’s legal fight against fracking, Encana, the Alberta Energy Regulator, and a government ministry.
“Slick Water pretty much maps out the politics of resource abuse in this country. It carefully details and documents how regulators and governments go rogue and betray their citizens. It is a dark yet truthful portrait of modern power in a petro state. It is not the sort of political mirror we like to look into.”
Encana says it will defend the lawsuit and states on its website that it “has always firmly believed that Ms. Ernst’s claims are not supported by the facts and her lawsuit is without merit.”
Mr. Nikiforuk’s book, published by Greystone Books and the David Suzuki Institute, was nominated along with: John Ibbitson’s Stephen Harper (Signal, McClelland & Stewart); Greg Donaghy’s Grit: The Life and Politics of Paul Martin Sr. (UBC Press); Norman Hillmer’s O.D. Skelton: A Portrait of Canadian Ambition (University of Toronto Press); and Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s The Right To Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic, and the Whole Planet (Allen Lane). The winner will be announced at the Politics and the Pen event in Ottawa on April 20.
Your book is about one woman’s courage and her fight against Encana, a government ministry, and the Alberta Energy Regulator. Why did you want to write this book?
“Jessica Ernst’s remarkable story has haunted me since 2004. What really impresses me is that she is not an activist or an environmentalist. She actually worked in the oil and gas industry most of her life and loved her job.
“But when one of her own clients lied to her local community about the impacts of fracking, her world suddenly turned upside down. Like most people, she expected the government and the energy regulator to make things right. And when they lied too, and portrayed her civil inquiries as hysterical and unfounded, Ernst decided she had no choice but to fight back. So she gathered her courage and the best evidence she could find, and pushed back for accountability and justice. Suing Encana, the Alberta government and the Alberta Energy Regulator is like suing ExxonMobil, the Texas government, and its Railroad Commission all at the same time. It takes guts and determination.
“Democracies die without uncomfortable truth-seekers like Jessica Ernst. How could you not like a story like this? It is inspiring. Everyone should take notice.”
Do you think your book has brought some measure of justice to Jessica Ernst’s fight against Encana?
“Given the power of the oil and gas industry and the belaboured nature of Canada’s court system, it might be the only justice she sees. Her case, at root, is a simple case about groundwater contamination by industry. But it has floundered in the legal system for eight years. Both industry and government lawyers have one strategy: bankrupt the plaintiff. But Ernst has other plans and growing support out there.”
Your book raises lots of questions about the role of Big Oil in government. Can you elaborate on this?
“Slick Water documents the inner workings of a petro state. For 43 years, Alberta was ruled by one party that owed its political success to one industry: Big Oil. A government dependent on hydrocarbon revenue, whether it’s Alaska or Alberta, eventually becomes a compromised and corrupt entity. It lowers taxes and runs on oil and gas revenues. But if you are not being taxed, you will not be represented. In the end, petro politicians make decisions that facilitate fracking or pipelines instead of upholding the law or protecting public resources such as groundwater and farmland.
“The only political remedy is to take the money off the table and place the proceeds in a separate fund that politicians can’t touch. Norway figured this out; Canada and Alberta didn’t.
“Peter Lougheed offered Canadian politicians a novel solution: Go slow. Behave like an owner. Save the Money. Collect your fair share. Add value. Clean up the mess. We still haven’t got it right.”
… “The drilling and fracking of shales, by definition, is much more disruptive than conventional oil and gas. It uses more energy, disturbs more land, consumes more capital and employs more water than conventional resources. Because it is so high cost, it can only be done in regions with less regulation and oversight. Yet this extreme mining delivers fewer energy returns let alone profits at the end of the day. Shale oil and gas fracking are really exercises in diminishing returns—they are extreme businesses that tell society that we are reaching limits.
“As a messy mining operation the unconventional shale industry completely changes life in rural communities. It fragments land, dominates roads with noisy truck traffic, pollutes the air, gobbles up extreme amounts of water and creates great unease about the future. Toxic gases migrate off well pads into people’s homes and livestock as well. These impacts on the health of families explain why so many women oppose this technology.
“The final insult comes with the loss of government representation. That happens when provincial agencies such as the Alberta Energy Regulator become complicit in what amounts to large-scale land abuse. To serve Big Oil the regulators unwittingly facilitate the destruction of other forms of natural capital or wealth (farming and ranching) and all to support the government’s addiction to oil dollars. It is the oldest story in the west.
“Any community or city that has tried to limit fracking in their backyard has been legally challenged by their elected government. But if local communities can’t decide their own fates, then who can in a democracy?”
Your book also investigates society’s obsession with mining low-grade oil and gas formations and the future of democracy. Can you elaborate on these points as well?
“Jessica Ernst’s case and its legal journey really raises one big question: can a technology as unpredictable and forceful as hydraulic fracturing ever be properly regulated?
“The evidence strongly suggests not. Even Canada’s environmental ministers recommended as early as 2002 baseline groundwater monitoring prior to shale or coal gas extraction. But that never happened—anywhere. According to John Cherry, Canada’s top hydrogeologist, not one province has yet set up a proper system to monitor groundwater contamination over time in places being fracked. Why? Because it is expensive and such monitoring would eventually make fracking a zero-sum game.
“Scientists discovered more than 40 years ago that fluid injection can cause earthquakes. But regulators still have trouble admitting that industry-made earthquakes can pose a hazard to public safety. Even though regulators have access to digital mapping tools to gauge cumulative impacts from shale gas drilling and fracking, no oil-funded government will employ them. Why? Because they make the damage visible.
“Last but not least, there appears to be no accountability. Once your water has been contaminated by fracking or leaking wellbores, there is no aftercare, no restitution and no justice. You are on your own.”
Why is the book important and who should read it?
“The book exposes much hidden science about fracking as well as the legal mechanisms that the oil and gas industry have used to hide related damages. Incredibly, the Catholic Church used the same legal mechanisms to cover up the abuses of pedophile priests in cities like Boston years ago. A representative of the Bishop offered money to the abused family and demanded that they sign confidentiality agreements. Meanwhile the Church sent the abuser off to another parish. The shale gas industry has employed the same legal chicanery. They give abused landowners a cheque and then ask them to sign non-disclosure agreements and all to maintain a regulatory fiction: that fracking is safe and proven.
“Ernst will not settle out of court with her abusers or let the facts about groundwater contamination be swept under a legal carpet. That’s what makes her story so important.”
Why do you think your book has been nominated as one of the top five best political books of the year in Canada?
“The nomination surprised me. Slick Water pretty much maps out the politics of resource abuse in this country. It carefully details and documents how regulators and governments go rogue and betray their citizens. It is a dark yet truthful portrait of modern power in a petro state. It is not the sort of political mirror we like to look into.”
Anthony R. Ingraffea, of Cornell University, says you “masterfully reveal what everybody in the oil and gas industry knows, but does not want the public to know, about past and likely repeat, offences.” How do you respond to that?
“It is a high compliment from a scientist who is one of the most knowledgeable fracking experts on the continent. For 20 years, he worked for the industry trying to solve its most persistent challenge: how to predict where industry-made fractures in rock will travel. No one has solved that one yet.”
What is fracking’s ongoing impact on people, land, and water?
“They are legion. The technology causes earthquake swarms and even changes the composition of microbes underground. It rattles and shakes oil and gas infrastructure and thereby acerbates a multi-billion dollar liability: leaking wellbores. The technology can also release methane, CO2 and radon into the atmosphere and make the problem of gas migration much worse. Truck traffic from fracking crews has destroyed billions of dollars’ worth of public roads. Throughout Alberta and North Dakota companies fracking for oil have burned or flared off enormous amounts of impure methane into the atmosphere poisoning downwind communities. The technology also consumes large quantities of fresh water and has contaminated groundwater with methane from Alberta to Texas to Pennsylvania.
“In sum, fracking is an inelegant technology that creates more problems than it solves. Driven by easy credit it represents an economic dead end. But as a society we are loathe to set limits on any kind of technology.”
Fifteen per cent of your book’s royalties will go toward helping Jessica Ernst’s fight her ongoing legal case. How long will this go on for? How much will it cost her?
“The Supreme Court will soon rule on one aspect of her case. If the highest court in the land agrees that Jessica Ernst has the right to sue a regulator for violating her Charter rights, her case will resume its tortuous journey through Alberta’s courts. The case could drag on for another five years before her lawyers even get a chance to present her damning evidence in court.
“Ernst and the many other people unsettled by this technology cannot put their suffering into dollar values. She has given up a so-called ‘normal’ life to pursue justice and to prevent more abuse of people and water. I have no doubt that Ernst, now a folk hero in many countries, will take this matter to the end—no matter what the cost. And her remarkable case has two great defenders: everyday the scientific evidence against fracking becomes more damning while public support for her case just grows stronger.”
Slick Water: Fracking and One Insider’s Stand Against the World’s Most Powerful Industry, by Andrew Nikiforuk, Greystone and David Suzuki Institute, 350 pp., $29.95. [Emphasis added]