Top five fracking questions

I've mentioned on social media before that I'm neither pro or anti-fracking.  I acknowledge that the extraction process has risks associated with it, but so does any natural resource extraction process.  If there is a special opportunity for New Brunswick to prosper, we should explore it.  That said, I'm not willing to risk contaminated water in exchange for some short term royalties either.  I'm from Sussex, and all too aware of the effect that mining activity is purported to have had on wells and properties in Penobsquis.

The positions of the political parties seem to be as follows:

  • NDP - The position of the NDP now seems to be a moritorium on fracking, although their 2010 platform (on page 37) was not so stark in its stance.
  • Liberals - After promoting shale gas while in government, the Liberal position now is a moratorium until stronger regulations can be put into place. This is also a change from their 2010 platform (on page 7).  Liberals have specifically noted stronger regulations are needed on "well casing standards, disposal and storage of wastewater and site rehabilitation."  Tories correctly note though that it was the former Liberal government that signed the original contract lease with Southwest Energy to develop shale gas without sufficient regulations in place.
  • Conservatives - The position of the Tory government seems to be to unabashedly move forward as safely as possible without raising the ire of the public.  Considering the government is made up of reasonable people, they must be convinced that it is safe and the risk is manageable.

Right now, the Liberal and NDP politicians are on the right side of public opinion.  A recent poll showed that 45% and 41% of people in Moncton and Saint John respectively oppose shale gas exploration including fracking.  Many members of this entrenched opposition are completely against shale gas exploration and development of any kind.  But, 27-29% support it and 28-30% say they just don't know.  I'm guessing the latter group is like me where they've seen and heard a lot, but aren't completely sure this is the right thing to do.  The "don't know" group may be open to it, but admit that they just don't have enough information to pass judgment.

The claims against the industry range from widely acknowledged truths to wildly paranoid theories.  The sometimes frantic opposition has made accessibility to objective information somewhat hard to come by.  This deficit has led the academics like Donald Savoie to urge New Brunswickers to debate factually about fracking.  The provincial newspaper also published an objective six-part series on fracking called "20 Questions: A Shale Gas Primer" by Paul Gessell - required reading for anyone interested in the topic.  (Here are the links to Paul Gessell's six-part series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.)

After reading many articles on the subject, I still feel like I have much more to learn about fracking.  Honestly, despite my best efforts to educate myself on the subject I suspect, like many contentious things, it's difficult to achieve a level of perfect information.  I will continue to read (and blog) about the issue, but I wanted to pause to note my top five questions and concerns about shale gas to date:

  1. What is the composition of the fracking fluid that will be used in New Brunswick?  Even though chemicals comprise less than one per cent of the fracking fluid and it's being injected far below the water aquifers, I'd still like to understand what what's being injected into the ground.  The Alward government's regulations state that the contents of the fluid will be disclosed to the public. One executive reportedly drank the latest cocktail of fluid.  So, what is it composed of, and how much of it are we proposing to leave in the ground?
     
  2. Unlike some, I'm not so concerned about the amount of water used; it's less than many other types of industry.  But, where will the water come from?  Will it be trucked in, or will it need to be sourced from a pipeline of some sort?  What types of water can be used, and what are the risks of each?  Do we need to use potable water sources or could other types of water be substituted, like waste water
     
  3. Specifically, how will the waste water created by the fracking process be stored?  Underground below permeable rock?  Above ground holding basins?  What about other waste by-products?  Where will waste water be treated, and what will happen to it once it's treated - pumped back into fresh water or drinking water sources?  In Quebec, of the 31 shale gas wells that government officials inspected, 19 were found to have leaks.  What's the risk to the environment from leaky wells?
     
  4. What happens to depleted wells?  The average lifespan of a shale gas well is only about five years.  After it is no longer profitable, gas extraction stops even if there is much more gas to be captured. Some estimates say wells become unprofitable when they are 20 per cent depleted.  So, what happens then?  The wells are sealed for all eternity?  What happens if the seals or casings rupture?  What if the considerable remaining gas resurfaces? 
     
  5. How much money are we talking about here?  Energy Minister Craig Leonard has said shale gas in New Brunswick could be worth $150 million to $250 million a year in royalties to the province.  What is that projection based on?  In what year would it peak; how many wells required?  What data does the government have to back up those numbers?  Do those numbers include potential spin-offs?

I still have a stack of reading that I'm gradually working my way through.  I will post some links and my layman's analysis of the articles in future postings.  I'm worried though that despite everyone trying to do the right thing, at some point we'll need to admit that we don't know how this is going to turn out and still decide as a province whether we want to roll the dice.