October 31, 2011 8:19 am

Untested Science


There is an energy revolution underway thousands of meters below our feet. A new method of extracting vast reserves of natural gas that were previously thought inaccessible is in full swing. It’s called fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, and its lead to a boom in gas production across western Canada. But this new technique is also raising serious environmental red flags. In France, ‘fracking’ has been banned. In Quebec and New Jersey there are moratoriums in place. So is this the answer to our energy woes or a risky unproven science?

How hydraulic fracturing works:

Fracking is not new to the oil and gas industry but recent technical advancements have made it possible to access previously inaccessible gas deposits held in rock formations thousands of meters below the surface.

It’s done be forcing water, sand and a chemical mixture down the drilling pipe under extreme pressure. The fractures or cracks in the rock allow the gas to rise to the surface.

Environmental Concerns:

Story continues below

Modern fracking technology is raising environmental concerns in the United States where, last April, a U.S. Senate Congress ordered a thorough investigation into the technology. The U.S. Congress report showed hundreds of chemicals are used in the fracking fluids, many of which are toxic. Concerns about lack of regulation and of the ability of the energy industry to remediate the used fracking fluid are raising alarms.

Water on fire:

But one of the most serious allegations is that fracking can contaminate drinking water. Recently Albertan Jessica Ernst launched a $33 million lawsuit against the Alberta government and energy company EnCana because she alleges EnCana’s fracking contaminated her well water.

Jessica graphically made her point to16x9 by taking a match to her tap water and lighting it on fire. She claims it started after EnCana started hydraulic fracturing near her property in Rosebud ten years ago. “I’ve lived at my place since 1998 and the water change is incredible,” says Jessica, “one Christmas I was in tears because there was so much gas coming out of my kitchen tap I couldn’t close it.”

British Columbia:

And there are other concerns, especially in northeastern British Columbia where the fracking revolution has created a boom in shale gas extraction.

Residences such as Farmington’s Lois Hill say it’s changed their rural paradise into an industrial nightmare.

“The drilling goes on day and night for three weeks and then the fracking for another week and we’ve got the high-pitched whine, scream actually, of the compressors building up the pressure, before they get the pressure high enough to crack the rock” says Lois.

But worse than the noise, when chemicals are released from the smoke stacks the air quality can suffer. Lois claims she and her husband were exposed on a drive one day. “Our eyes burnt, we were coughing, and my husband threw up, Lois recalls. “I had purple lesions on the back of my throat for about three weeks after that.”

B.C. Minister of Energy and Mines, Rich Coleman says he is studying the health and environmental issues but equates many health concerns as local myths. “You know, there’s lots of people who have sort of, urban myths around the process,” he said. “We’ve been actually fracking for probably over ten years in BC safely and environmentally strongly, I think”, says the Minister.

Environmental researcher and author Ben Parfit disagrees with Coleman. He thinks there is plenty of evidence that fracking isn’t safe. Parfit studied hydraulic fracturing and published a report for the University of Toronto’s Munk School. “In the winter of 2009 there was a potentially fatal release of sour gas near the community of Pouce Coupe in northeaster B.C. The cause of that gas leak was definitively linked to a build up of sand from the fracking process in the well, which caused the well piping to corrode and break”

Parfit is calling for public disclosure of what exactly government and industry is doing in the Peace Region. Parfit says, “Until such time as we have that, and we don’t have that right now, then we can’t even begin to have a discussion about whether or not this is the kind of thing that we want and we want to see happening.”

And until a larger discussion and regulations are in place, Lois Hill will continue to raise her concerns about fracking. “The only choice we have is either to continue fighting, you know, hoping to get somebody’s attention, or move.”

Watch 16×9 Saturday at 7pm when Carolyn Jarvis looks at the controversial practice of fracking.

Report an error


Want to discuss? Please read our Commenting Policy first.