Snowflakes and the avalanche: promoting fracking in Newfoundland

Public lecture offers engineering perspective, makes fracking debate murkier

On Jan. 30, Memorial University’s Harris Centre hosted an event in Corner Brook featuring Dr. Maurice Dusseault, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Waterloo, who shared an engineering perspective on the controversial method of oil and gas extraction that could soon make its way into Newfoundland and Labrador.

The public forum provided a good opportunity to examine the sort of rhetoric and skewed logic that is typical of the fracking industry (and hopefully does not foreshadow the parameters of the upcoming provincial internal assessment and review process).

Particularly difficult to understand are a number of statements by Dr. Dusseault (who acknowledged he has previously worked as a consultant for the oil and gas industry), both in his presentation and also in the question and answer session that followed:

“My view of the environmental issues is based upon what we know are the facts about fracking. I’m not speaking about surface spills from fracking trucks … and I’m not speaking about the abandonment of facilities to be eroded and impaired. I’m speaking about fracking. … The risks from deep fracturing are not the real risks. The real risks you should look at are the surface risks.”

What does this mean?

Dr. Dusseault is compartmentalizing and separating out various parts of a process by focusing only on the specific geographic space underground that is fracked. Things like the transportation of fracking fluid, the disposal of wastewater, old abandoned wells, and other such aspects of the process of hydraulic fracturing are simply externalities. This is difficult for thinking people to accept, because bracketing out all the supposed externalities is myopic, or—in plain language—ridiculous.
To illustrate the point, take this quote from Dr. Dusseault referring to an image of a fracking protester used in his presentation:

“Fracking does not kill. And juxtaposing this person with the police here, who were called in to stop illegal activity, unfortunately, makes it look like it’s a fascist state suppressing free thought. Well, that’s not true. This person is expressing her opinion. Unfortunately it is misinformed. Fracking does not kill.”

We understand from the earlier quote that Dr. Dusseault is not talking about surface spills. He is not talking about water poisoned by leaking holding ponds. He is not talking about the worker killed in an explosion at a fracking site in West Virginia and he is not talking about the 47 people killed in Lac Megantic, Quebec, when a train full of hydraulic fractured Bakken oil derailed and exploded. These are externalities, or “surface risks,” as he calls them. These are industrial accidents, mishaps, or human errors, but have nothing to do with the actual underground geographic spaces that are fracked. And so, according to this logic, Dr. Dusseault can sincerely make the claim that fracking does not kill.

One can similarly make the claim that cigarettes do not kill people; lung cancer kills people. High-fat diets do not kill people; cholesterol and clogged arteries kill people. Falling on a sword does not kill people; rather, the breakdown of the cohesive bonds of cellular membranes kills people.

Dr. Maurice Dusseault.
Dr. Maurice Dusseault.

After stating the risks of fracking (taken here to mean only the underground geographic space) are minimal, Dr. Dusseault goes on to say that governmental regulations of fracking are woefully inadequate and that there are not enough regulators to properly monitor the industry: “The regulatory investment in Canada is pathetic … we need more regulators and we need them in the field”.

So, without regulators to observe the industry, how can he make any sort of claims about risks? Where is that data coming from? Does the fracking industry report of its own volition irregularities and mishaps? Are these issues just more externalities?

Mulling over these philosophical conundrums, a quote from Stanislaw Lec comes to mind: “No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.” Fracking, as Dr. Dusseault understands it, is a single snowflake. The transport trucks are another. The tailings ponds are another. Abandoned wells are another.

Certainly it is possible to compartmentalize all these things, and perhaps there is even a consistent logic to this view. But when you look at a mountain of snow you don’t see single snowflakes, and when you’re buried in an avalanche sophistry is little comfort.


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