May 1, 2014 7:45 pm

Too many ‘knowledge gaps’ within shale gas industry: report

Watch above: A new report looks at the impact fracking for shale gas could have on the environment. Laura Brown reports.

Shale gas has quickly emerged as a low-cost alternative to natural gas and, with the goal of reducing carbon into the atmosphere, it’s touted as a “cleaner” alternative to other forms of energy.

But the process used to extract shale gas — called hydraulic fracturing or fracking — is a hot button issue for environmental groups and communities that fear their groundwater could be put at risk.

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A new report, commissioned by Environment Canada and authored by 14 scientists from across North America, recommends more information needs to be collected to understand the potential effects fracking could have on the environment.

The 292-page report, compiled by the Council of Canadian Academies, said the impact can’t be determined because the data to measure it isn’t there, making it hard to say fracking is safe.

“Environmental monitoring, measuring the environmental conditions is critical to do now, not after the fact,” said Douglas Wright, Program Director at the Council of Canadian Academies.

READ MORE: What is shale gas, and why are people protesting against testing for it?

“Shale gas represents a vast new energy resource for Canada and the world, and its potential environmental impacts are similarly vast,” the report said.

It noted the substantial shale gas reserves that are believed to exist in Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and the existing shale gas industries in Alberta and British Columbia.

More than 11,000 wells are set to be drilled using fracking this year in Western Canada alone.

Tom Al, a professor of Earth Sciences at the University of New Brunswick reviewed the report before it was released.

He said the report does a good job of identifying where the “knowledge gaps” are within the industry.

“You can’t expect results really quickly,” Al told Global News. “Moving slowly is good because… it provides an opportunity for research to be done.”

WATCH: Report on fracking puts a spring in anti-shale gas protesters’ steps. Vassy Kapelos reports.

Some environmental groups want shale gas extraction stopped until more is known about the risks it may pose.

“[The] government should put a moratorium on fracking until more science is done,” said John Bennett of Sierra Club Canada.

The report identified some of those improvements, including the recycling of flowback water, using fewer and more benign chemicals and relying more on tanks rather than ponds to store wastewater.

“However, during this time, there has been no comprehensive investment in research and monitoring of environmental and health impacts for either the implementation of best current practices or in the case of accidental releases that cannot be reduced to zero,” the report said.

But industry proponents said regulations are in place and don’t agree a slowdown is necessary.

“The fact that we’ve been in this business for decades in the natural gas business and 10 years in the business of hydraulic fracturing, we’ve got a great deal of experience in this place,” said David Pryce of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

The Council also implied areas with rural populations that are higher than the Canadian average, such as in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, there could be a “greater risk of conflict between existing land uses and shale gas development.”

In New Brunswick, where criticism of shale gas extraction led to repeated protests and a blockade last year that ended in arrests, the government praised the Council’s report.

READ MORE: RCMP pepper spray, arrest N.B. anti-shale gas protesters, police cars set on fire

But, government officials reiterated the need to move forward cautiously.

“We aren’t going to have any drilling taking place, at least until next year and we probably won’t even have any hydraulically-fractured wells drilled in shale formation for a couple years,” Minister of Energy and Mines Craig Leonard said.

Leonard said the next step is for a well to be drilled so that they can study it, collect data and begin to understand the impacts, if any, the industry could have on New Brunswick’s environment.

SWN Resources, the company at the centre of a fracking controversy in New Brunswick, said it hopes to drill four test wells next year that will help determine the location of shale gas deposits.

With files from Vassy Kapelos and The Canadian Press

© Shaw Media, 2014

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