Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is not without its risks, but outright bans are unjustified and would hinder natural resource development in Canada.
This is according to a December 11 Fraser Institute report, Managing the Risks of Hydraulic Fracturing, which says that the risks involved with the procedure are low and manageable.
The Fraser Institute quotes a study by the journal Science, which found that, worldwide, over 1 million fracking procedures have taken place, with only one recorded case of direct groundwater pollution.
“While there are risks associated with any type of oil and gas extraction, or any large-scale human endeavor, there's no evidence of unmanageable risk associated with hydraulic fracturing that justifies a ban or moratorium,” said Fraser Institute’s Centre for Natural Resources senior director Kenneth Green.
Fracking is a hot-button issue, as many environmental groups argue that it should be banned outright due to the risks of pollution of groundwater and other natural bodies of water. Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia do not currently allow the practice, and the procedure is banned in some European countries, including France.
Last year, the Council of Canadian Academies found that environmental risks are undeterminable due to a lack of information, in particular around whether or not fluids can escape from sealed wells.
Marc Lee with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives said that although the industry denies that there are problems with hydraulic fracturing, there are many cases where groundwater was found to be contaminated in an area directly after the industry moved in.
"We’ve seen cases where fracking has led to leakages of natural gas, methane and other chemicals into groundwater supplies, we’ve seen issues with the natural gas industry around other kinds of air pollution, hydrogen sulphide emissions, which can literally kill people and other animals," Lee said.
"Those are major risks associated with the industry."
Lee said the use of fracking is not being developed with the caution necessary to address related potential health and environmental impacts.
"Those impacts need to be addressed first, not sort of dealt with in the courts many years later," he said.
He also said that the use of the practice should be consistent with the goal of a zero-carbon economy within a couple decades.
Regulation of the practice
The Fraser Institute study states that there is a public perception that fracking is largely unregulated, but that this is not the case.
The institute quotes the Canadian Society for Unconventional Resources: “All Canadian jurisdictions regulate the interface between water and the natural gas industry, and the application of evolving hydraulic fracturing techniques for unconventional gas development is no exception.”
Across Canada, fracking is regulated by the National Energy Board through the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and in British Columbia, it is regulated by the BC Oil and Gas Commission by the Oil and Gas Activities Act.
As well, the oil and gas industry has strict self-regulation, said the report. This regulation exceeds legislated requirements.
To help mitigate risks further, the report recommends, companies engaged in the practice should ensure adequate insurance is in place to deal with any pollution that does occur. Tracking technology should be developed in order to identify when environmental damage does occur.
As well, the report said independent certifying bodies should be formed in order to promote best practice.
Canada has estimated natural gas reserves of up to $4.6 trillion, the report states, and banning fracking altogether could have huge economic repercussions.
In August, federal Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau came under fire from politicians in northeast British Columbia for saying fracking should be halted before all the risks are thoroughly evaluated. The politicians said that even a temporary stoppage could have drastic consequences, saying Trudeau was ill-informed.
“He has no idea about the oil patch at all,” Northern Rockies Regional Municipality Mayor Bill Streeper said at the time.
“To say that we need to study fracking more shows the ignorance that comes out of the East and the West.”
Streeper went on to say that future of northern B.C. would be in jeopardy if the practice was banned.
The Fraser Institute’s report says, “The call for bans and moratoria are passionate…but policymakers should ignore the siren song of the simplistic solution.
“Bans and moratoria may make it seem like one is taking action against risk, but they simply defer those risks to a later date, if and when activity resumes, which—given the vast economic potential of shale gas and oil—it most likely will.”
-With files from Peter McKenzie Brown and the Alaska Highway News