Time for a real debate on fracking risks, benefits

The fracking debate — or more accurately the absence of one — is another example of B.C.’s great divide.

The fracking debate — or more accurately the absence of one — is another example of B.C.’s great divide.

If fracking was going on in the Lower Mainland, or the Okanagan, it would be front-page news. (Just look at how quick the government was to pay a company $30 million to make the prospect of uranium mining — more benign — vanish from the Okanagan.)

But fracking is booming in the northeast, as energy companies rush into a shale-gas boom. So it’s largely been taking place under the radar. Many people probably have no real idea what it is.

That should change. A full debate about the practice and the government’s approach to regulation is urgently needed.

Fracking has been around for at least three decades. As a newcomer in Alberta long ago, I was intrigued by the Fracmaster trucks rolling around the highways. They pumped water and additives, under pressure, into wells to fracture the rock — thus the name — allowing oil and gas to flow more freely from conventional wells.

Today’s fracking has little in common with that relatively low-tech approach.

Energy companies have tapped a new resource in gas trapped in shale deposits. Horizontal drilling — drilling down and then parallel to the surface — has allowed long wells through the rock formations. New equipment allows the injection of water, sand and chemicals under extremely high pressure to crack the rock, allowing the gas to flow.

The chemicals, some toxic, help the process. The sand flows into the fractures and prevents them from closing. Unlike the old days, when wells were usually fracked once, the industry will repeatedly frack the same well to increase producton.

The advances have allowed the energy companies to exploit vast new reserves around the world that were trapped in the rock formations. Northeastern B.C. has been a particularly hot spot; half the gas in the province is now produced by fracking. The government says production could double by the end of the decade.

That’s got some big benefits. The government has cashed in on auctions for drilling rights and leases and on royalties. (Though the lease revenue plummeted this year to $223 million, compared with $844 million last year.)

The boom has brought jobs to the northeast, and the rush of shale gas onto the market has depressed natural gas prices — good news for consumers.

But there are huge environmental issues and governments have lagged badly in understanding them and regulating the fracking operations.

Start with water. It takes vast amounts of water to generate the pressure needed to frack a single well. Energy companies in B.C. already have the right to withdraw water from lakes and rivers that’s equal to the consumption of a city of more than 700,000 people. They also draw from wells and have applied for large amounts of water from the Williston Reservoir on the Peace River, used by B.C. Hydro to generate power. There is concern other users will be left dry.

Once the chemicals are added, the water is toxic. That creates risk to aquifers, both in the fracking operation and when the companies try to dispose of the water by injecting it into deep wells. The seriousness of the threat has been debated, but this month the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported a preliminary link between fracking and well contamination in Wyoming. Encana, the company involved, disputes the finding.

On top of those risks, fracking has caused earthquakes in the U.S. and England.

Some jurisdictions, like Quebec, and France and some U.S. states, have banned fracking.

But B.C. hasn’t even had a real debate about it, or the regulations and oversight needed.

Independent MLAs Bob Simpson and Vicki Huntington have called for the creation of an all-party legislative committee to hold hearings and report on fracking. It would be a useful start.

Footnote: The province has made some regulatory changes. Companies were required to report water use this year (though about one-third didn’t comply and received fines of under $1,000). And a new online registry will have information about fracking locations, though companies can still keep the chemicals being used secret.