BC’s expansion of shale gas fracking puts our water and climate goals at risk

November 10, 2011

Don’t believe the hype. British Columbia’s natural gas is far from the “clean,” “green,” “transitional” fuel that the energy industry and provincial government claim it is.

In fact, the shale gas increasingly extracted from northeast BC by means of hydraulic fracturing - more commonly known as  “fracking” - is beginning to look a lot like the natural gas equivalent to Alberta’s tar sands oil.  And here’s why.

Fracking is the dangerous and environmentally destructive process of injecting tonnes of sand, water, and chemicals at extremely high pressure into shale rock in order to release trapped natural gas. Like the process of extracting raw bitumen from the tar sands, fracked shale gas from BC produces huge amounts of greenhouse gases, and requires vast amounts of water and electricity to produce.

Deepening the irony, much of the shale gas produced in BC is currently destined for Alberta, where it is used as fuel in the tar sands. How “clean” does that sound?

Or this? A recent analysis by a senior executive at BC Hydro concludes that the expanding BC shale gas industry would require access to a huge amount of new clean (relatively speaking) hydropower –– between two and three times the power produced at the proposed Site C dam.

Where will all that power come from, and at what cost, both environmentally and economically? And have British Columbians really been fully informed about why we need so much new hydropower?

Then there’s the water demand. Today in northeast BC, global shale gas industry records are being set for water usage – with nearly 1.5 million cubic metres or 600 Olympic swimming pools’ worth of water used at some fracking sites, water that becomes highly toxic from the chemicals that are also used in the fracking process as well as a result of everything that the water comes into contact with once it is pumped underground.

With thousands upon thousands of shale gas wells to be fracked, such intense water use presents formidable environmental risks. It also poses increased health and safety risks, from contaminated drinking water, to potentially lethal releases of gas containing hydrogen sulphide. One such release of this so-called “sour gas” in the winter of 2009 near the northeast BC community of Pouce Coupe was definitively linked to the fracking process.

In addition to sucking up BC’s water and electricity resources, fracking wreaks havoc with our climate change goals. Two recent studies – one by the Pembina Institute’s Matt Horne, the other by Simon Fraser University’s Mark Jaccard – have concluded that if shale gas production in BC evolves as the industry says it could – and as our government clearly indicates it wants – our greenhouse gas emissions are poised to skyrocket.

There’s simply no way around it under business as-usual scenarios, and even less of a chance if BC proceeds with big increases in liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports to Asia via tanker ships, or to Alberta via pipelines, for conversion into a range of liquid fuels including diesel, propane and naphtha. Both schemes would be fuelled by fracked gas.

With both the Liberals and NDP supporting BC’s exporting of fossil fuels to Asian markets (both back the building of new LNG plants), the question has to be asked: How do they square an explosion in shale gas developments with BC’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals? A doubling in industry emissions is likely by 2020, meaning that every other sector of BC’s economy will have to cut their emissions by half to accommodate the shale gas industry’s projected growth.

Clearly, the province needs a credible action plan that addresses the gulf between its stated climate change objectives and its support of increased fossil fuel production – a plan that also shows sound environmental and economic leadership when it comes to our water and hydro resources.

Such a plan should start with a simple premise. We should be managing our shale gas industry for wind-down, not wind-up. That means placing firm caps on annual gas production to give us a fighting chance of hitting our climate change targets. It means declaring no-go zones where the industry is not allowed to operate. And it means ending the ongoing subsidies to the industry in the form of royalty breaks and infrastructure credits, and possibly increasing royalty rates to ensure maximum economic benefits to the people of BC.

These reforms and a whole lot more are needed to set our province on a new road to the low carbon future we rightly should be striving for.

Ben Parfitt is the resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and author of a new study Fracking Up Our Water, Hydro Power and climate: BC’s Reckless Pursuit of Shale Gas available at: www.policyalternatives.ca/fracking.