An investment in the unknown

In 2011, former environment minister Peter Kent commissioned a group of Canadian and American scientists to research the risks of shale gas development by hydro-fracking.

According to the report issued by the Council of Canadian Academies, “the rapid expansion of shale gas development in Canada over the past decade has occurred without a corresponding investment in monitoring and research addressing the impacts on the environment, public health, and communities.”

Fracking, which involves pumping a mixture of water and chemicals into the earth, has created reasonable unease among environmentalists and First Nations groups, particularly for its potentially harmful effect on water sources.

There’s a general lack of knowledge and information about the full extent of the risks of fracking. Yet, according to New Brunswick Premier David Alward, the development of the shale gas industry is a means of creating greatly needed jobs. In a January provincial address, he stated that the government would push ahead in the shale gas sector because “the cost of not doing so is too great.”

Aren’t the costs of investing in the unknown too great?

According to a 2009 U.S. congressional committee report, there are 750 different chemicals that have been used in fracking, twenty-nine of which are carcinogens.

The chemicals are not the only danger. Last July, forty-seven people were killed and thirty buildings were incinerated in Lac-Mégantic, Québec when a train carrying crude oil derailed, causing an explosion. The oil contained hydrogen sulphite, which would have naturally dissipated in a properly ventilated or open area; however, when contained in a tanker, the pressure built and when ignited by a heat source, exploded.

CN Rail says it does not differentiate between fracked and non-fracked oil, transporting them with the same equipment. Fracked oil, however, can contain trace amounts of corrosive chemicals that can damage the tankers that contain it, increasing the likelihood of spills and accidents.

There is not enough information about the process of fracking, nor about the oil or gas it produces. The long-term effects of the Lac-Mégantic explosion will not be known for some time. The oil cannot be transported safely if the system isn’t ready, and developing an industry without all the systems in place is quite reckless. The shale gas industry may create jobs, but what will be the increased costs of outfitting new trains or creating new transport methods?

If New Brunswick’s government is concerned with the vitality and growth of the economy, then they should consider the ramifications and strain that environmental cleanup and sick citizens will have on the health care system and the economy.

The government has created regulations for the testing of the durability of the wells and ensures that they are not constructed in close proximity to homes, hospitals or schools. Unfortunately, accidents don’t consider regulations. Clearly, there is an understanding that precautions need to be taken; however, it would be seemingly difficult to create standards of development or production amidst the series of the unknowns of fracking. The Environment Canada report advised a “go slow” approach that emphasizes increased attention to research and data collection, and the government would be quite wise to do so.

Originally published May 8, 2014

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