Wrong Question: can fracking be done safely?

I published this post in February 2013. I have continued to add material to it, so the most recent bits of info are at the top of the page: scroll down for the original, which hasn’t been changed.

February 12, 2015

Dr. David Wheeler (president of Cape Breton University), who headed the Nova Scotia (government-appointed) panel on hydraulic fracturing in 2013-2014, gave an excellent speech to the Maritimes Energy Association. It’s an overview of our current and future energy needs and a plea for a Carbon Tax. He published it on his blog: Embracing a new energy future for Atlantic Canada”. Read it!

January 23, 2015

The King’s County Register published my letter about fracking (in Nova Scotia). Read it here.

Ten days after its publication, I received an envelope in the mail, i.e. it was sent to my home address by regular snail mail. There was no return address. The envelope contained the printed version of my letter, with a lot of comments, many of which are illegible. It’s clear that the sender doesn’t agree with me. That’s fine. But I wonder what kind of mentality this is? Clearly this person knows who I am and where I live (note that my address was not published in the paper) and yet decides to take anonymous action. Weird? Childish? Uneducated? All of that and more. Here is the annotated newspaper cut-out:

Advertiser letter anonymously annotated

January 6, 2015

Today I read this excellent objective overview of the State of the Art of hydraulic fracturing – I urge you to read it too. It didn’t change my position as outlined below in my original post.


Original February 2013 Post

Yesterday the Province of New Brunswick announced a new set of regulations pertaining to hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking. A summary of these new rules is here

The host of CBC’s Maritime Noon, Normalee MacLeod, paid attention to this news and asked listeners to react to the question that is the title of this post: can fracking be done safely?

I think that question needs rephrasing.

How about this: “Can we develop hydraulic fracturing of shale gas reserves in a way that is safe for people and the environment?”

I want to rephrase the question because I believe we need to regain ownership of this subject. Most citizens – that is: most vocal citizens – are concerned or opposed to shale gas development and the issued is perceived to be one that’s owned by government and industry and citizens seem to have lost faith in both (at least to some extent, because when the pulp and paper industry imploded, citizens expected the government to bail them out; isn’t that a little opportunistic?).

How did we get here? Why is not everyone deeply involved in trying to be part of changing and regaining control of our energy supplies in order to diminish environmental damage and improve the economic balance? How is it possible that most people have at least some concern about global warming and sea level rise, but at the same time are incapable of connecting that concern to their own situation?

First the facts: natural gas is the least dirty of all fossil fuels. The dirtiest one, i.e. the one producing most CO2 (Greenhouse gas, aka GHG) is coal, then oil, then natural gas. Natural gas (methane) is a really bad GHG before it is burned but not afterwards. President Obama has recently made it abundantly clear that the United States is taking climate change serious and he has pledged to reduce emissions. In fact, the US has already reduced emissions seriously these last 5 years – its emissions are down to the level of 1994, thanks to a shift in electricity generation: coal-fired power plants are rapidly being replaced by gas-powered power plants and this shift is made possible by the massive development of shale gas.

“Environmentalists” (I consider myself an environmentalist, but I doubt that those who are labeled environmentalists by the media would agree that I am one) point out that shale gas development has too many unknown risks:

  • potential groundwater contamination by chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing;
  • leakage from wells (both chemicals and natural gas)
  • the combination of the two is a public health risk

These concerns are realistic, but isn’t it our joint responsibility, our duty as citizens of a democratic society to address them and find solutions? Why turn our backs and dig our heels in? As soon as the NB Government announced its new rules yesterday, various groups in opposition to shale gas development were quick to point out that these rules didn’t solve anything (or words to that effect) and that “gas still emits CO2”. Excuse me? Everyone knows that the world will not be converted to a carbon-free economy overnight, that we need at least 50 years to make significant progress and that – meanwhile – natural gas is the preferred fuel, the so-called “bridging fuel”. It is essential that we develop natural gas at the expense of all other fossil fuels.


This figure (click on it to enlarge it) shows household energy use in Canada as calculated by Statistics Canada for 2007, the most recent year for which data were available. The figures are a little confusing because of the way Statistics Canada calculates the percentages in each jurisdiction, but this graph is what I think represents their data best

The red bar represents natural gas usage. The overall Canadian figure is the one furthest to the left, all jurisdictions are plotted in geographic order, from West to East. The image leaves no doubt: the left side of the graph has a lot of red and there is virtually no natural gas usage east of Ontario. Out here in Nova Scotia, our household energy is supplied mostly by oil (imported mostly from the North Sea) and by electricity (which is produced largely by coal-fired power plants and that coal is imported from Colombia and Venezuela, and I honestly have no idea how environmentally friendly or humane those mining operations are but I’m not hopeful). Both oil and electricity therefore have had to travel thousands of kilometers before usefully feeding our energy needs. We also burn wood, more than any other jurisdiction. I want to address wood fuel in a different post some day. We may not have a lot of people here, but we have an unbelievably irresponsible energy usage for this day and age.

Nova Scotia has some shale gas, New Brunswick has a lot more. The reason for the difference is geological – their Carboniferous basins are a lot thicker than ours. The household energy usage of New Brunswick is comparable to that of Nova Scotia – no gas usage of any significance.

Developing unconventional gas is necessary in order to reduce emissions, regain control of our own energy usage and prevent the severe bleeding of workers to the West of the country.

The Maritime Noon website sports an ad for a Chevrolet Silverado, a car with an average gas mileage that is at best 30% higher than that of a sensible compact…………


About earth science society

I am an earth scientist. Understanding earth is essential for the well-being of our global society. Earth is fascinating, science is fascinating and a better understanding of both can help society forward. This blog attempts to make a contribution to raising awareness of these issues.
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