Go-slow approach urged on fracking
A report from a panel of top Canadian scientists is urging a go-slow approach to the booming industry of hydraulic natural gas fracking.
So little is known about the long-term impacts of extracting gas by fracturing rock beds with high-pressure fluids that scientists and regulators need to start now to understand how to develop the resource safely and cleanly, said co-author Rick Chalaturnyk, an engineering professor at the University of Alberta.
“We really do stand a chance to put in place the regulatory framework to answer the questions around environmental impact.”
Chalaturnyk was part of a panel formed by the Council of Canadian Academies, an independent organization that brings together university researchers from across Canada to look at public policy issues.
It was asked by Environment Canada in 2012 to examine fracking and drew its conclusions from publicly-available, peer-reviewed research.
Its 292-page report said the economic benefits could be significant across Canada. There are substantial or potential deposits of shale gas in all provinces and territories except Manitoba, P.E.I., and Nunavut.
“Canada’s shale gas resources dwarf the 60.4 trillion cubic feet of marketable gas reserves that the National Energy Board estimated remained in Canada at the end of 2010,” the report said.
However, it found significant uncertainty on the risks to the environment and human health, which include possible contamination of groundwater as well as exposure to poorly-understood mixtures of chemicals.
“The scale and pace at which shale gas resources are being developed are challenging the ability to assess and manage their environmental impacts,” the report noted.
The effects on groundwater from fracking water pumped underneath the surface are one concern.
“There is reason to believe that shale gas development poses a risk to water resources but the extent of that risk, and whether substantial damage has already occurred, cannot be assessed because of a lack of scientific data and understanding,” the report said.
Exposure to chemicals is another. A long list of substances must be added to fracking water, and their possible effects on human and environmental health are unknown.
Some jurisdictions don’t even require industry to list what chemicals are being used.
Many suggest that increased fracking could help mitigate climate change through the increased use of natural gas, which emits less carbon than fuels such as coal.
But the council’s report noted natural gas is itself a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide, and emissions from leaking wells could outweigh the benefit from replacing other fuels.
Energy industry officials, however, are disputing the go-slow advice.
David Pryce of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said fracking builds on decades of experience with natural gas.
He noted the industry supports the call for more research, but said industry and governments across Canada are moving quickly to ensure best practices are used.
Pryce also said new problems can be addressed as they arise.