When we know more about Christmas lights than fracking, it’s time to take a harder look

A messy issue…

In April, 2011, I represented an environmental group at the “Minerals Strategy” workshop organized by the Department of Natural Resources (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador). Having worked in conservation in the province for more than 20 years, I thought the workshop was a breath of fresh air from the department – it was as if long-shuttered windows had been opened to let the cleansing sunlight into a dim room. I remember one government official confiding in me that, while some of the staff may have been a little overzealous in their advocacy for industry, they were now aiming to act in a more neutral, expert advisory role. I left the workshop feeling guarded optimism.

Fast forward almost two years. There is a heated debate over a proposal from Shoal Point Energy to conduct hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” in two or three communities along the west coast of the Island, including Sally’s Cove in Gros Morne National Park (Sally’s Cove is not actually in the park but in a small enclave surrounded by the park). Shoal Point Energy has been engaged in oil exploration on Shoal Point since 2010 and they initiated public consultations on their fracking proposal in November 2012.

In short, fracking differs from “normal” oil drilling in that sand, water and various chemicals are used to force apart tightly bound sheets of shale so that the oil can be released to flow to the surface (as opposed to most other wells which access oil already under pressure – cue the Beverly Hillbillies). The public consultations generated several letters to newspapers and calls to talk radio programs.

Not only a local debate

Local residents have voiced several concerns. Pollution of drinking water, impacts on fish and wildlife, and the negative image of “fracking” within a UNESCO World Heritage Site are among the most common concerns. The sheer volume of water used in this process is something to be concerned about – researchers from the University of New Brunswick estimate that each well uses between eight and 12 Olympic swimming pools of water. The proponents respond that this technique has been used successfully for 60 years and that the industry is subjected to extensive government regulatory oversight. They state that fracking has already been permitted on the west coast with no ill effects. One thing both fracking advocates and opponents seem to agree on is that the specific, local geology plays a very important role in determining the risk to the environment (and success of the endeavor).

Some big guns have big concerns

With unintended timeliness, the Office of the Auditor General of Canada released the “Fall 2011 Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development” on Feb. 5, 2012. The report highlighted several concerns related to fracking. First, the commissioner stated that the Government of Canada (responsible for toxic substances) does not have a sufficient understanding of the issue to determine whether risk assessments or control measures are required. Second, in a more general sense, he was concerned that the pace of development seems to be outstripping the pace of environmental protection. Third, in case something does go wrong, the liability limits required of companies working in the offshore in Canada are “outdated” and far below the limits required by the U.S. and other jurisdictions. Fourth, he found that the Canada Newfoundland Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB) does not “…systematically track environmental assessment mitigation and follow-up measures.”

Say Shoal Point Energy’s fracking proposal is approved with specific conditions to mitigate damage to the environment. CNLOPB does not have a stellar record in keeping track of the proponent’s implementation of these required conditions. Similar concerns have been expressed by many other groups like the Sierra Club of Canada.

Christmas lights and fracking

A search of the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador website for the words “fracking” or “hydraulic fracturing” produced a surprisingly low number of hits – four and seven respectively (If you would like to conduct this search or other fun searches for yourself, follow this link. A search of the CNLOPB website produced similar results. In contrast, a search on the government website for the phrase “Christmas lights” produced 198 hits. I could find no evidence of a previously approved fracking project on the west coast on the provincial government or CNLOPB’s websites. While this doesn’t necessarily reflect individual expertise within government, it does accurately reflect the number of publically available studies conducted by government and the amount of debate within the legislature.

Is there a measured way to move forward?

I am not “anti-development”. Fracking can be a messy business, but then so is most industrial development. By and large, Newfoundland and Labrador society appears to accept the risks associated with offshore development (with the occasional kick in the pants to the regulating agencies involved). In the case of fracking in western Newfoundland, however, there are too many questions and concerns to support a similar confidence.

While elements of fracking have been used for 60 years, combining fracking with horizontal drilling is only 10 or so years old. Given the risks involved, the relatively low capacity of the fracking proponent to pay for any clean up and the regulating agencies’ unpreparedness, what needs to be done at this stage is the provincial government (in consultation with CNLOPB) must declare a moratorium on fracking until an independent study can be completed. In order to raise the credibility of the study, a citizens committee should be created to provide comment on the study parameters and the choice of researcher. The committee could consist of concerned citizens and representatives from the mining and environmental community (there should be little or no cost to this committee – individuals would participate voluntarily and government could provide a staff person from the Department of Natural Resources to act as an neutral secretary). The study would look at the specific geological conditions along the west coast of the Island and provide a risk assessment, including both the terrestrial and marine environments. Only by studying the specific environment, conditions and risks on the west coast will we come to anything resembling a consensus on the issue.

This is not the time for the Department of Natural Resources to circle the wagons and “close the windows” again – it is time for the Department to put into practice the fresh, new spirit they exhibited two years ago during the Mineral Strategy consultations.

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