Examining The Debates And Science Around Hydraulic Fracturing

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Last month I talked about the role of science in supporting decisions on important societal issues such as climate and energy.

While peer-reviewed science is the gold standard, many real-time decisions must be made with the information at hand, including high-quality science reported outside the peer-reviewed literature — at conferences and workshops, or in directed government / regulator / industry reports.

So let’s examine the debates and the science around hydraulic fracturing. 

Hydraulic fracturing (HF) was in the public eye across the country a few years ago, but has attracted less public attention recently.  It is practiced routinely in petroleum-producing provinces but is effectively banned in other jurisdictions.  As soon as an explorer wants to try HF somewhere new, objections are raised.  Witness the reaction of the local MP in Lancashire (UK) to fracturing of the Bowland Shale and the miniscule associated induced seismicity:  “many of us [are] anticipating more powerful tremors in the future days and weeks”, and [stopping hydraulic fracturing is] “an ever narrowing window of opportunity to make a change to safeguard the planet.”

In Canada, we’ve seen similar stories play out in Nova Scotia, Quebec and the Yukon.  The new Conservative government of New Brunswick is meeting opposition as it proposes to lift the HF moratorium at least locally, allowing Corridor Resources to resume development of its producing tight gas reservoir (which was developed without incident using hydraulic fracturing over the past decade).

But even in northern British Columbia, where HF has been practiced routinely since the 1970s, anti-development advocates sound emotionally-overwrought alarms about real and imagined risks and hazards.  Ben Parfitt (Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA)) has written repeatedly on water consumption, storage and disposal under headlines like “Easy Water:  Time bombs, fracking dams and the rush for H2O on private farmlands” (The Tyee, March 29, 2018).  Andrew Nikiforuk, another frequent contributor of breathless anti-industry pieces to The Tyee, promotes his book Slick Water as “a stunning examination of fossil fuel industry and government abuse … a different story of water contamination, seismic activity, landscape industrialization and economic ruin.”

And the grand-daddy of all self-proclaimed environmentalists, David Suzuki, explained gravely in Shattered Ground, a 2011 episode of The Nature of Things, that Talisman Energy’s diversion of water from Williston Lake for hydraulic fracturing “endangers Vancouver’s water supply.”  Dr. Suzuki did not explain how taking water from the Peace River drainage system, which is on the opposite side of the continental divide from Vancouver and drains into the Arctic Ocean, would endanger Vancouver’s drinking water.  Vancouver in fact sources its water from the local Capilano, Seymour, and Coquitlam watersheds — more than 1,000 kilometres from Williston Lake.

The common elements in all of these pieces are drama, exaggeration, misinformation, and emotional appeals to protect the Earth from the immoral predations of the oil and gas industry and failings of incompetent regulators.  “Fracking” is “brute force,” all fluids are “toxic,” production is “fracked” gas.  Reporting is by “analysts” lacking relevant scientific background, often trained as journalists.  Opinions are published in advocacy vehicles like The Tyee, The Narwhal, or the CCPA’s website (where you can find Ben Parfitt’s presentation to the B.C. Scientific Hydraulic Fracturing Review Panel just after the CCPA BC Submission to the BC Rental Housing Task Force and just before the report on Provincial Support for CED in Manitoba).  While passing reference is sometimes made to scientific research, it is used only (and usually out of context) to score specific points. 

So what about the actual science addressing hydraulic fracturing and the environment in northeast B.C.?

Since 2008, Geoscience BC (www.geosciencebc.com),  an independent non-profit organization funded by the provincial government, has conducted scientific studies addressing water resources, water disposal, groundwater protection, induced seismicity and methane emissions associated with hydraulic fracturing.  The BC Oil & Gas Commission (OGC), the industry regulator, has engaged their professional geoscience and engineering staff to conduct targeted research, and has commissioned outside studies to address specific issues around water resources, water disposal, and induced seismicity.  Academic research is ongoing at the Geological Survey of Canada and at many universities, including UBC, Victoria, Alberta, Calgary and Western to name a few.

Most of this work is presented at conferences and workshops hosted by scientific organizations — GeoConvention (in Calgary), Unconventional Gas Technical Forum (in Victoria), and talks and workshops hosted by Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) and Canadian Society for Unconventional Resources (CSUR), among others.  Geoscience BC, OGC and GSC peer-review then publish their reports publicly.  Some research is eventually documented in formal peer-reviewed literature.  And of course, there’s an enormous volume of similar work being done and presented outside of British Columbia.

The science — these reports and presentations — documents our understanding of environmental issues associated with hydraulic fracturing.  Industry and regulators use the science to optimize the use of water resources, protection of groundwater, mitigation of induced seismicity, detection of methane emissions, and many other activities.  Access to water resources is restricted when stream levels are low, injection wells are shut down when pressures exceed safety margins, fracturing is stopped when seismic events are detected.  Regulations are updated to reflect sound, well-documented science.  Strangely enough, anti-industry advocates seem to regard these actions as something bad — when a company stops doing something because of a science-based regulation they are condemned instead of being applauded. 

By any measure, drilling and fracturing operations are informed by science, and the vast majority are conducted safely, with little risk to the public or the environment.

Clearly, when it comes to hydraulic fracturing and the environment, science informs the practitioners and the regulators, but is ignored or abused by anti-industry advocates.  So why do people like the MP in Lancashire feel they must stop HF to save the planet?  I think Peter Tertzakian’s words tell the story:

 “This is a battle for people’s minds and you can’t just have an air battle.  You have to have representation on the ground – round tables, talking to people, dedicating resources”.

Peter was talking about climate change, but the strategy applies to HF as well.  Dramatic, emotion-laden stories told by professional communicators disconnected from scientific knowledge will always trump logical, dispassionate science authored by scientists observing strict professional codes of ethics — at least in the eyes of the public.  Science shows hydraulic fracturing to be an efficient, safe technology when properly regulated — but scientists, regulators, and industry need to figure out how to communicate that to the public in a fashion the public will believe.