Climate change not a priority for NL fracking review panel

It may be the most pressing issue of our time, but the chair of NL’s recently appointed fracking review panel says climate change is “not what the panel’s about”

Climate change will not be a priority for the province’s recently announced fracking review panel.

The government-appointed panel has been tasked with assessing the hypothetical use of the controversial method of fossil fuel extraction in western Newfoundland. It has until October 2015 to present its final report to government, including a recommendation on whether or not fracking should be permitted in the province.

In a recent interview fracking review panel chair Ray Gosine told The Independent that the committee’s terms of reference are “to consider the implications of a particular type of oil and gas extraction in a particular geographic region, and within a particular socioeconomic context,” and that considering fracking in the context of climate change is “not what the panel’s about.”

Natural Resources Minister Derrick Dalley told The Independent that while the issue of climate change may come forward during the review process discussions, and while the “point may be widely held” that we need to be decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels and that climate change should be a primary consideration for the fracking review panel, he “suspect[s] there’s also viewpoints widely held that…there is a tremendous need for fossil fuels at this point in time in our history.”

Dalley noted that the “economic value and benefit” of oil and gas present “a strong argument” for the fossil fuel industry as a major part of our economy.

Whether or not fracking ought to be permitted in the province after considering both its relationship with climate change and the province’s economic needs “depends on your perspective,” he said. “It depends on the balance that you try and stake here.”

Climate change intensifying

The fracking review comes at a time when extreme weather events in North America and around the world are increasing both in frequency and intensity as a direct consequence of anthropogenic climate change, exacerbated by rising greenhouse gas emissions—largely from the burning of fossil fuels like oil, coal and petroleum—which are driving up the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Last month both NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared October 2014 the hottest October on record in terms of global temperatures.

On Tuesday the United States experienced record cold, with temperatures dropping below zero in every state, including parts of Hawaii. Despite the major fluctuation, climate scientists are saying that barring a very cold December, 2014 is on track to be the hottest year on record globally.

Meanwhile, last July marked the warmest month on record for St. John’s, with temperatures rising above 25 degrees Celcius 19 out of 31 days.

In recent years Newfoundland has seen an increase in the number of storms characterized by high winds that have caused severe damage to infrastructure.

According to a 2013 study by MUN climatologist Joel Finnis the weather in this province will become warmer, wetter and less predictable over the next 50 years. The same research also showed that the province will see a two to four degree temperature increase by 2050.

Rising global temperatures are also threatening a mass extinction of ocean life, an outcome that could be devastating for the livelihoods of tens of thousands of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who depend on various fisheries for their livelihood.

According to the Climate Institute website, if we stay on our current trajectory “the productivity and even the survival of thousands of marine species [are] at risk.”

In August University of Ottawa PhD student and Happy Valley-Goose Bay native Robert Way released a study indicating Labrador has been warming at twice the rate of other regions of the world, a trend that is already threatening coastal communities where people depend on snow and sea ice for transportation and access to hunting grounds where they get their traditional foods.

Earlier this month the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the final part of its Fifth Assessment Report, the most comprehensive and widely recognized study on climate change in the world. The report, authored by hundreds of the world’s leading climate scientists, says by continuing to emit greenhouse gases we will “cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.”

Furthermore, it concludes, “limiting climate change would require substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions which, together with adaptation, can limit climate change risks.”

Among the more grim predictions for our future, the Millennium Project’s 2009 State of the Future report said if greenhouse gases are not curbed to make way for sustainable growth, “billions of people will be condemned to poverty and much of civilisation will collapse.”

Fracking boom comes to Newfoundland

Over the past decade fracking has exploded across North America and parts of Europe as the oil and gas industry and governments work together to capitalize on reserves of previously inaccessible fossil fuels that have been made accessible by advancements with the technology.

The technology and the overall process around fracking is still evolving, however, so the booming industry doesn’t come without its share of problems.

Requiring millions of gallons of water to frack a single well, fracking places a high demand on local water supplies. There is potential for groundwater contamination. Oil companies are not required by law to disclose all of the chemicals they use in the fracking process, meaning unknown hazardous chemicals are being transported through communities, injected into the ground, partially extracted and stored somewhere, which leads to the question of where to store the toxic wastewater.

People living near fracking operations have also complained of air pollution, and a recent study in New York found evidence of cancer-causing chemicals near fracking sites.

People have also expressed concerns over the flow of heavy trucks and equipment moving in and out of their towns, and the toll that will take on their roads and bridges.

On the climate change front, some researchers claim fracking contributes more to the problem than is largely assumed, by way of poor well integrity and methane leakage, otherwise known as fugitive emissions.

The Nova Scotia fracking review panel recently addressed the problem in its final report: “Due to lack of knowledge regarding long-term material resilience in deep wells, the potential longer term (e.g. greater than 100 years) liabilities of future gas leakage into the atmosphere or seepage into local groundwater cannot be calculated at this time; this emphasizes the need for effective long-term monitoring, as well as the local level modelling of risks in the short, medium, and long terms.”

Robinsons artist and concern west coast resident Reed Weir produced this painting based on information taken from a Shoal Point Energy slideshow presentation that depicts a "schematic development scenario" for wells to
West coast artist Reed Weir produced this painting based on information taken from a Shoal Point Energy slideshow presentation that depicts a “schematic development scenario” for fracking on the Port au Port Peninsula.

Communities thinking of taking the risk may be interested in the work of Cornell University engineering professor Anthony Ingraffea, whose research focuses on physical testing of complex fracturing processes. Ingraffea has co-authored multiple research papers on well integrity and the problem of well leakage and fugitive methane emissions.

In a 2013 interview with The Tyee he told journalist Andrew Nikiforuk that “[f]luid migration from faulty wells is a well-known chronic problem with an expected rate of occurrence.”

Nikiforuk, an award-winning investigative journalist who has been covering the oil and gas industry in western Canada for almost 20 years, concluded the article: “The health implications are also serious. The migration of methane or fracking fluid has repeatedly contaminated groundwater across North America or polluted the atmosphere with methane, a potent greenhouse gas.”

Ingraffea and fellow Cornell researcher Robert Howarth, an environmental biology professor, claim fracking in fact contributes more to climate change than conventional methods of oil and gas extraction.

Meanwhile, a recent study by Princeton University scientist Mary Kang of 19 abandoned oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania found them to be leaking various amounts of methane. According to a Guardian article about Kang’s research, there are hundreds of thousands of abandoned wells in Pennsylvania alone, and they all could be leaking methane.

Methane is the most potent of the greenhouse gases, 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide over 20 years in terms of its impact on climate change, and 34 times more potent over 100 years.

The third part of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, released last April, argues natural gas could play an important role for economies transitioning from coal to renewable energy.

Newfoundland and Labrador does not generate energy from coal, however, and as Gosine pointed out companies who have expressed interest in fracking here have said they would be looking for shale oil, not natural gas.

“There’s going to be gases involved, but what they’re looking to monetize out there would be the oil content rather than gas. We don’t have gas infrastructure in the province,” he said.

Whichever type of fossil fuels are extracted by fracking, many say looking for new ways to get them out of the ground is precisely the opposite of what we need to be doing to avert irreversible climate change.

Angela Giles, Atlantic regional organizer for the Council of Canadians, said that “given the infrastructure that’s required, I’m not really sure why [fracked fossil fuels] would be considered as part of that category.

“Why we need a transition that requires that much investment in infrastructure, and also destruction of the environment and potentially water — I just don’t comprehend how people could think that this would be an appropriate [way to] transition.”

The real bottom line

Above all, however, is the need globally to be transitioning away from fossil fuels toward clean and renewable forms of energy, like wind, solar and tidal. So why doesn’t the conversation about allowing a new kind of fossil fuel extraction into Newfoundland and Labrador begin and end with climate change?

Because the panel’s mandate “begins and ends with the terms of reference,” said Gosine, and the terms of reference as set out by the provincial government do not include climate change.

Gosine, Associate Vice President of Research at Memorial University and a director of C-CORE, the school’s primary corporate research partner for ocean and oil and gas engineering, also emphasized the need to find “balance” as we consider the economic benefits of fossil fuels while considering their contribution to climate change.

“The exercise is one of trying to do things that we need to do in the most responsible manner,” he said. “So if you’re asking me personally—this has nothing to do with the panel—for me it’s a matter of responsible balance. And some of that, in the balance, is what are we trying to be and what do we need to be as a people and a place?

“Find me an energy source for which there are no opponents on climate change grounds,” he continued. “You put a wind farm in, a major wind farm—I’m not talking about a couple windmills, I’m talking about thousands of units—and there are other issues that arise. Energy supply and meeting our demand is a complicated set of circumstances for which I don’t know that there’s any solution for which there are no negative consequences.”

In order to avoid irreversible climate change, global warming needs to be kept under 2 degrees centigrade over the preindustrial levels, the IPCC says. According to an article in Bloomberg, this means that most or all remaining fossil fuel reserves need to be left in the ground.

 [F]or me it’s a matter of responsible balance. And some of that, in the balance, is what are we trying to be and what do we need to be as a people and a place?  –Ray Gosine, NL fracking review panel chair

A National Geographic article published earlier this year features two climate scientists who say “the world is already on track for warming beyond 2°C”.

With climate change already the cause of major food insecurity and social and political instability around the world—including large scale suffering and death in the global south as a result of droughts, floods, famines and more frequent ‘natural’ disasters—some argue that any further fossil fuel development, knowing the consequences, is tantamount to “industrial-scale and systemic violence”.

But as Canadian author and journalist Naomi Klein details in her new book This Changes Everything, the climate crisis is an opportunity for global cooperation in doing something we’ve already done before.

“[W]e need to return to the progressive tradition of responding to deep crisis by trying to get at the root causes of the crisis,” she told The Atlantic in an interview last September. “And the best example of that is the way in which the progressive movement responded to the Great Depression. It became an opportunity to change the way we organized our economies, to regulate banks, to launch social programs that got at the roots of inequality.”

In Newfoundland and Labrador, some say, initiating our contribution to the global cooperation necessary to avert irreversible climate change can begin—but not end—with saying ‘no’ to yet another form of fossil fuel extraction.

A search for the term “climate change” in the province’s biggest fracking-related Facebook group, Port au Port/Bay St. George Fracking Awareness Group, reveals people in the 2,242-member group are talking a lot about fracking’s impact on climate change.

One member shared an Oct. 13 Guardian article that quotes Bank of England Governor Mark Carney saying the “vast majority of [fossil fuel] reserves are unburnable” if global temperature rises are to be limited to below 2 degrees Celsius.

Introducing the article, she wrote: “This is precisely why we have to resist the expansion of extreme energy/unconventional extractive methods like tar sands and fracking and immediately divest from oil and gas to focus on renewable energy and other ways of living on this planet such that it remains habitable.”

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