On the same day that Nova Scotia’s governing Liberals introduced legislation to ban high volume hydraulic fracturing in the province, I happened to be on a “fracking tour” in the U.S. with a bus load of other environmental journalists in a place that had instead embraced it.
We were headed from New Orleans to the Louisiana/Mississippi border and the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, an oil and gas-rich formation located in a 90-million-year-old layer of sedimentary rock sitting more than 11,000 feet below the surface. Encana Corporation had rights to the area and we were going to meet a representative to show us around one of its drilling pads.
It didn’t take long for the news of Nova Scotia’s decision to make its way to the bus load of scrappy, mostly American reporters and researchers, many of whom regularly work the energy beat. As everyone cheered and clapped it struck me that when it came to fracking, it was highly unusual for a government to act in the public interest. And indeed this government had. The legislation came on the heels of an independent panel review on the subject, headed by David Wheeler, which received nearly 240 submissions, with 92 per cent in support of a moratorium on the controversial technology.
The evidence showed that fracking can contaminate ground water and water wells, requires exorbitant amounts of water, wastes exorbitant amounts of water, and it triggers earthquakes. 1
Wheeler’s “go slow” approach was also recommended in 2014 by the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) — an independent not-for-profit organization that provides “science advice in the public interest.” At the request of Environment Canada, the CCA assembled an expert panel to assess the state of knowledge regarding potential environmental impacts of fracking in Canada and it reported back that there was a “lack of peer-reviewed data on both social and environmental issues,” as well as an “absence of baseline information to assess and monitor if hydraulic fracturing is having negative, long-term and cumulative effects.” In addition it warned about how “deep waste-water injection,” a practice used in other places to deal with the contaminated “flowback” water, may not be feasible for eastern Canada. 2
And for four years all was quiet on the fracking front, until just last week when the Nova Scotia government was urged by the Maritimes Energy Association to revisit this ban following the release of a new Energy Department analysis that found the province’s shale gas potential to be worth between $13 and $40 billion USD. 3
Geoff MacLellan, the energy minister, to his credit, responded with assurances that that the government had no intention of lifting the moratorium. Let’s hope this is true because one doesn’t have to look very far to see the chaos and damage fracking has caused elsewhere.
In western Canada we have the astonishing story of the 10-year legal battle of Jessica Ernst, an Alberta resident who claimed that fracking contaminated her drinking water so badly that she could set it on fire. About a year ago she lost the protracted legal battle against the Alberta Energy Regulator, which was given immunity in the case, but her lawsuit against the Alberta government and Encana Corporation is still proceeding through the courts.
The key issue raised by Ernst’s case is that while it is known that fracking has caused thousands of earthquakes in the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin, there is no formal protocol for investigating groundwater contamination complaints, which are on the rise, and there is little or no monitoring of how the earthquakes might be impacting groundwater and gas migration.
In his 2011 book, The End of Country: Dispatches from the Frack Zone, Seamus McGraw makes it pretty clear how fracturing rock thousands of feet below the earth’s surface could lead to the chaotic, highly unpredictable, and undesirable intermingling of fluids.
McGraw compares the process to sending down “a kind of subterranean pipe bomb, a small package of ball-bearing-like shrapnel and light explosives.” As far as comparisons go, it seems to be a good one. Millions of gallons of water along with sand and a host of chemicals (referred to as slick water) are pumped at such a force into the shale formations that the rocks shatter and release untapped deposits of oil and gas. 4 The sand functions as a wedge to hold open the fractures to allow the release of the trapped gas or oil.
On our way to the Encana drilling site I learned that the fracking boom in the State of Louisiana resulted in a long list of high profile incidents called “fraccidents,” including pipeline ruptures, explosions, well blow-outs, and yes, the discoveries of contaminated, flammable drinking water. On the bus, folks from the Gulf Restoration Network spoke about the exorbitant water consumption of the practice, the drilling of wetlands, and how both enforcement and compliance with rules was low.
And then there are the “orphan” wells — the ones that are no longer in production, usually because the company has gone bankrupt. In Louisiana they are popping up everywhere, posing huge accountability problems, particularly in terms of groundwater safety because the companies abandon the wells before they’ve been plugged or detoxified. Don Briggs was on our bus too. At the time he was head of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association and he was there to extoll the industry’s virtues. But when it came to the orphan well problem, he was discouraged. He told us there was an industry-funded program set up to try to clean up the abandoned wells but he said, “they just can’t keep up with the new ones being created.”
You’d think Louisiana would have been more circumspect. After all, it’s no stranger to oil to and gas catastrophes. In 2005, it suffered through Hurricane Katrina, the severity of which has been attributed to climate change, and then five years later, an oil slick appeared in NASA’s satellite images, 66 km off Louisiana’s coastline, swirling much like the hurricane did, in exactly the same place. It would become the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. All told, the explosion and sinking of British Petroleum’s oil platform Deepwater Horizon killed 11 rig workers and resulted in what felt like a never-ending horror: the gushing of oil from the seafloor for months — 87 days to be exact —amounting to a spill of nearly five million barrels of crude as well as the addition of nine million litres of toxic oil dispersants.
And if the known threats to human health and drinking water aren’t enough to keep us on course in Nova Scotia, there’s also the dire warning that appeared in 2015 in the peer-reviewed journal Nature: in order to stay below the 2 degrees Celsius temperature rise and try to stave off catastrophic climate change we need to leave oil in the ground and stop exploring for more.
According to US author and environmentalist Bill McKibben, “We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn.” He says that while the fossil fuels are still technically in the ground, they aren’t from an economic perspective. They are “figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns.” He calls it a “carbon bubble” that will make the housing bubble “look small by comparison.”
Back in Louisiana, we never did meet the representative from Encana or actually see any fracking that day. We were told that at the last minute the company backed out. So instead we ended up pulling over on steamy country road and taking a short walk through a cemetery to a wooded area with a pump jack and a flare stack — drillers often burn off natural gas as a waste product when they’re after the more lucrative oil. It wasn’t what we came for, but it was at least something. We were then chased off that site because it was private land.
For many of us on the bus, the news coming out of Nova Scotia on that day in September, four years ago felt like a bright, shining moment of sanity and democracy in action.
The question is, will it be brief?
Linda Pannozzo is the author of the 2016 book About Canada: The Environment. In 2014 she was in Louisiana attending the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conference where she received an award for her 2013 book The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: An Investigation into the Scapegoating of Canada’s Grey Seal. She lives in Nova Scotia.
- In 2015 it was reported that the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission recorded 193 fracking-induced quakes between August 2013 and October 2014 in just one siltstone formation between Dawson Creek and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. In the past several years the litany of confirmed reports of fracking-induced quakes in B.C. and Alberta has more than solidified the connection. ↩
- The Council of Canadian Academies report that while it’s common practice to dispose of the contaminated wastewater by injecting it underground into wells that are sometimes shallower than the production wells but still much deeper than the freshwater aquifers (often into depleted oil and gas reservoirs or saline aquifers), the geological conditions in Nova Scotia would not be conducive to this, and could result in groundwater contamination. (p. 95 of the CCA report) ↩
- The Onshore Atlas also notes, as an aside, that the current legislation “disallows high-volume” fracking. Bill No. 6 — which amended the Petroleum Resources Act to prohibit high volume fracking (unless for testing or research) received Royal Assent on Nov. 20, 2014, but was never proclaimed, which means it never really took effect. The Act states that “The Act comes into force on such a day as the Governor in Council orders and declares by proclamation.” Does this mean N.S. doesn’t actually have a ban in place, one that can be enforced? Interestingly, in a recent Facebook post, former Liberal energy minister Andrew Younger (who incidentally was also the minister to introduce the legislation back in 2014) said “The government never proclaimed the legislation before the election so it is now and has never been legally banned or restricted.” I contacted the Department of Energy to see if this was in fact true, but have yet to hear back. ↩
- The site Frac Focus, created by the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission and modelled after the U.S. site by the same name, lists a total of 59 chemicals that could potentially occur in fracking fluids. In 2012, B.C. was the first province in Canada to require the Natural Gas industry to disclose the ingredients of fracking fluids, however, the actual amount of each constituent is still an industry trade secret. The list reveals that many of them are highly toxic and they fall under the categories of acids, biocides, breakers, clay stabilizers, corrosion inhibitors, friction reducers, gelling agents, iron control, non-emulsifiers, pH adjusting agents, scale inhibitors and surfactants. The site says that typically only between three and twelve additive chemicals are used, depending on the conditions. ↩