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Friday, May 2, 2014

Canadian panel: go slow on fracking

Shale gas is being developed in three Canadian provinces, and substantial recoverable reserves may exist in several more. But a report requested by the country’s Minister of Environment has concluded that there isn’t enough known about the impacts of hydraulic fracturing, and so, Canada should go slow on fracking.

Like similar studies issued by the European Union, this one reviews the extensive risks and impacts associated with the process. It finds: 
The assessment of environmental impacts is hampered by a lack of information about many key issues, particularly the problem of fluids escaping from incompletely sealed wells. If wells can be sealed, the risk to groundwater is expected to be minimal, although little is known about the mobility and fate of hydraulic fracturing chemicals and wastewater in the subsurface. The pertinent questions are difficult to answer objectively and scientifically, either because the relevant data have not been obtained; because some relevant data are not publicly available; or because existing data are of variable quality, allow for divergent interpretations, or span a wide range of values with different implications…
The technologies used by the shale gas industry have developed incrementally over several decades. This gradual evolution has obscured the full implications of the large-scale deployment of these technologies. Society’s understanding of the potential environmental impacts has not kept pace with development, resulting in gaps in scientific knowledge about these impacts. In most instances, shale gas extraction has proceeded without sufficient environmental baseline data being collected (e.g., nearby groundwater quality, critical wildlife habitat). This makes it difficult to identify and characterize environmental impacts that may be associated with or inappropriately blamed on this development.
The panel highlighted a subject that I’ve spoken about but not read much about – that full disclosure of chemicals is not enough to assess risk: 
Information is also required on potentially hazardous chemicals produced down-hole by chemical interactions under high temperature and pressure. This includes information on concentration, mobility, persistence in groundwater and surface water, and bio-accumulation properties, for each chemical on its own and as a mixture. This represents a major gap in understanding of the potential environmental and human impacts of hydraulic fracturing, and of how to mitigate accidental releases of chemicals or flowback water to the environment.
The panel also found that: 
Appropriate environmental monitoring approaches for the anticipated level
of shale gas development have not yet been identified. 
Finally, the report outlines what is says would be an effective framework for managing the risks posed by shale gas development in Canada: 
  1. Technologies to develop and produce shale gas. Equipment and products must be adequately designed, installed in compliance with specifications, and tested and maintained for reliability.
  2. Management systems to control the risks to the environment and public health. The safety management of equipment and processes associated with the development and operation of shale gas sites must be comprehensive and rigorous.
  3. An effective regulatory system. Rules to govern the development of shale gas must be based on appropriate science-driven, outcome-based regulations with strong performance monitoring, inspection, and enforcement.
  4. Regional planning. To address cumulative impacts, drilling and development plans must reflect local and regional environmental conditions, including existing land uses and environmental risks. Some areas may not be suitable for development with current technology, whereas others may require specific management measures.
  5. Engagement of local citizens and stakeholders. Public engagement is necessary not only to inform local residents of development, but to receive their input on what values need to be protected, to reflect their concerns, and to earn their trust. Environmental data should be transparent and available to all stakeholders.
These elements would need to be supported by environmental monitoring programs to supply credible, science-based information to develop and apply regulations. 
The panel concludes that public trust can only be achieved when additional, independent research provides answers to the questions they identify – before intensive drilling occurs.

How will the Canadian government respond? And can we learn anything from our neighbors? 

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