Getting to the bottom of the well: Shale gas report draws the battle lines for debate

The controversy around shale gas, especially for hydraulic fracking, comes from the dilemma it presents: Its development could entail a potentially significant economic benefit or potentially harmful effects on people and ecosystems, or both. Since their newly-released study was commissioned in May 2012 by Environment Canada, the Council of Canadian Academies has been attempting to shed light on the latter of these two horns and clear some of the ambiguities surrounding the environmental impacts of shale gas.

The debate around the environmental impacts of shale gas development is split. Advocates hold up the environmental benefits of the step away from oil and coal energy that shale gas may represent beside the economic benefits it comes with. On the other hand, those against development see the environmental risks as too high no matter the economic benefit and disagree that shale gas is the proper transition to make away from oil and coal.

“Recognition that wells may leak several decades or longer presents a challenge for all governments responsible for regulating shale gas development,” affirms the report. “The challenge involves balancing the desires of our current society for the economic benefits of this natural resource with the ethical imperative to avoid passing on the responsibility for well maintenance and impact monitoring to future generations.”

To meet this challenge, the report does not make specific policy recommendations, but instead focuses on recommending how to limit the risks posed to the environment.

For Canada in general, the main recommendation is a call for more time. With more time, the study says that more research can be collected about the obscure science behind shale gas and allow for in depth studies of its effects. More knowledge, it says, may sway public opinion in the favour of development.

“Because shale gas development is still at an early stage in Canada, there is opportunity to put in place the management measures required supported by appropriate research to reduce or avoid some of the negative environmental effects of this development.”

“There can be advantages in the ‘go slow’ approaches taken in the eastern provinces of Canada and in Europe allowing additional data collection and integration of multidisciplinary expertise,” states the report in its findings. “It is evident that more science is needed on which to base regulations, and that such regulations will only be effective if they are informed by timely monitoring and enforced rigorously.”

In the case of New Brunswick, this ‘go slow’ approach has stopped all hydraulic fracturing in the province outside small operations near Sussex. Yet, the slack pace is not the product of legislation: outside factors have hindered development, although the province is the owner of all its shale gas resources. Unlike in Quebec and Nova Scotia, there is no moratorium in place suspending development, but shale gas is not expected to be developed for several years. A great deal of the provinces’ natural gas potential remains unexplored and it is still a natural gas importer.

The main impediment causing its slow progression is the negative public opinion surrounding development.

“The impact of First Nations’ opposition to major resource development (e.g., pipelines) indicates that it is difficult to overemphasize the effect that Aboriginal resistance or support will have on future shale gas development in this country,” states the report.

In New Brunswick, First Nations opposition has been particularly poignant. Maliseet First Nation has vocally opposed government plans to promote the development of shale gas resources in the province. The aboriginal group has staged a series of protests and demonstrations in front of the provincial legislature alongside other locals. Mi’kmaq groups have also opposed exploration, most notably at the Elsipogtog blockade, which took a sudden violent turn in October.

Based on comments made at nine public consultations, the report sees public opinion in New Brunswick hinging around four issues—government integrity, water contamination, chemical health risks, and the security of freshwater supplies.

In addition to its ‘go slow’ approach, New Brunswick already has several well-related provincial regulations in place to ensure well integrity and containment in the result of a failure, and attempt to combat these concerns. These include a mandated surface casing depth of at least twenty-five metres below groundwater. The surface casing is a barrier to prevent the shale gas from contaminating the groundwater around it that must be paired with a secondary barrier in case it is compromised. Testing for possible failure and contamination is also required both before and after the fracking process and is done by emulating the process of hydraulic fracking with cement logs. There are regulations that prohibit wells from being constructed within either 250 or 500 metres of bodies of water, sources of drinking water, schools, hospitals, nursing homes, or dwellings as well.

The Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health for New Brunswick has put forward several recommendations in an attempt to address the chemical health risks posed. These include a health impact assessment that will target short, cumulative, and long term-term health impacts. On top of that, it also recommends monitoring protocols and looking for links between human health and the environment through the use of data.

There has been an effort by the provincial government to do additional research and monitoring like the report recommends too. The New Brunswick Energy Institute, established last year, is intended to provide much needed clarity around what further development of shale gas, particularly in New Brunswick, would mean.

The fate of shale gas development in New Brunswick may be decided this coming September in the upcoming provincial election. A few days before the report’s release, New Brunswick’s Liberal Party had announced that it supports a moratorium. The policy would be in direct contrast to the current Progressive Conservative government’s commitment to shale gas exploration. With the parties divided, the issue will undoubtedly play a key role in the month to come.

Originally published May 8, 2014.

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