Once again, hydraulic fracturing — a well-studied and long-used method of producing oil and gas — has come under attack in British Columbia.
A coalition of environmental groups, community groups and First Nations bands are calling for a “full public inquiry” to “investigate the risks and harms associated with fracking.” A resource analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives rejects the NDP’s proposed plan to appoint a scientific panel to review hydraulic fracturing, claiming that another scientific review “won’t be enough to fully address the true risks of deploying this brute-force technology throughout northeast B.C. Current realities dictate that we need a wide-ranging public inquiry.”
Perhaps the anti-fracking coalition is not satisfied with the idea of a scientific review panel because there has been at least a dozen such reviews and expert panels empowered by governments around the world, staffed with highly respected scientists and engineers, that all come to basically the same conclusion: Yes, hydraulic fracturing poses a range of environmental and social impacts, but they are relatively rare and manageable with existing technologies and regulatory practices.
In two studies by the Fraser Institute, in 2014 and 2015, we reviewed the findings of 14 such assessments of the risk posed by hydraulic fracturing from high-profile journals and research panels in Canada, the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom. The Canadian assessment was performed by the Canadian Council of Academies.
Our review summarized the findings of expert commissions (as well as academic reviews) of the three most prominent risks posed by hydraulic fracturing — risk to surface and groundwater, impacts on air, and induced seismicity.
On water contamination, a 2013 review article in the journal Science (Vidic, et al, 2013) found that “since the advent of hydraulic fracturing, more than 1 million hydraulic fracturing treatments have been conducted, with perhaps only one documented case of direct groundwater pollution resulting from injection of hydraulic fracturing chemicals used for shale gas extraction.”
A 2011 report of the New York State Health Department (which then had a ban on hydraulic fracturing) found that “no significant impact to water resources is likely to occur due to underground vertical migration of fracturing fluids through the shale formations.”
With regard to air pollution, a 2014 study conducted for the B.C. Ministry of Health found that short-term exposures to air pollutants were low enough that they did not pose a significant risk of adverse health effects in people living in the area, while long-term exposures to air pollutants from hydraulic fracturing were generally associated with a low potential for adverse health effects.
On seismicity, the Canadian Council of Academies found that although hydraulic fracturing operations can cause additional seismicity, most of the earthquakes felt by the public are not caused by hydraulic fracturing itself, but by the underground injection of waste water. They are mostly very low-strength tremors not felt at the surface of the Earth (though one 4.6 magnitude quake has been linked to hydraulic fracturing, and did not cause damage to persons of property). The CCA suggests that the risk of hydraulic fracturing causing earthquakes is low, and can be minimized through “careful site selection, monitoring, and management.”
As we observed in our 2014 assessment of the risk of hydraulic fracturing, fracking in Canada is a highly regulated activity, with extensive governmental oversight and self-imposed industry best-practices.
It’s hard to see how a “public inquiry” into hydraulic fracturing will produce anything significantly different than the voluminous literature, which shows the risks of hydraulic fracturing, while real, have been, and continue to be, managed by traditional engineering and regulatory practices. Such an inquiry will, however, play into the hands of those who oppose energy production in B.C., depriving the province of significant economic benefits.
B.C. would be best served by continuing thorough oversight of hydraulic fracturing, by maintaining robust environmental assessment and controls, by encouraging and assisting industry to further reduce environmental impacts of the process, and perhaps expanding the use of market mechanisms (such as water pricing) and the independent assessment of well integrity to address concerns about water use and well-bore integrity.
Hopefully, policy-makers in B.C., including the NDP government in Victoria, will err on the side of science.
Kenneth Green is senior director of the Centre for Natural Resource Studies at the Fraser Institute.