Vaughn Palmer: Science panel finds B.C. doesn’t know enough about fracking

More than 85 per cent of B.C.’s natural-gas production now comes from those unconventional sources. The New Democrats asked the panel to recommend new safeguards, not issue a stop-work order on a whole sector of the economy.

A hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, site as seen from the air near Fort St. John in April 2017. / PROVINCE

VICTORIA — A scientific panel has found B.C. doesn’t know what it needs to know about the environmental, seismic and other risks of fracking, the process whereby much of the provincial natural-gas resource is extracted form the earth.

“The panel wishes to emphasize that it could not assess risks with any confidence, and therefore only potential risks are discussed herein,” wrote the three panelists in a draft version of their report. “Moreover the panel could not assess whether risk is currently being managed or not.”

This after a year spent gathering research and expert opinions on the impacts of hydraulic fracturing or fracking — the injection of water and other chemicals into targeted rock formations to release natural gas trapped deep within the earth.

The final report from hydrogeologist Diana Allen, geological engineer Erik Eberhardt and earth scientist Amanda Bustin was delivered late last month to Energy Minister Michelle Mungall. She hasn’t yet approved the findings and recommendations for release.

However, the draft version, leaked last week to columnist Les Leyne of the Victoria Times Colonist, outlines the major unknowns facing the New Democrats, even as they promote the development of liquefied natural gas for export.

Here, for instance, were some of the concerns raised by the panel on the state of knowledge about water resources in northeastern B.C., where natural-gas development and fracking go hand-in-hand.

Ongoing monitoring of surface water and groundwater quantity: “Insufficient.” Information on stream flow, lake levels and wetlands: “Sorely lacking.” Observation wells for monitoring aquifers: “Insufficient.”

So it goes page-after-page.

On the dearth of data about water quality across the region, including the presence of trace metals, naturally occurring radioactive materials, and dissolved hydrocarbons and gases: “Concern was expressed that our understanding of these various chemicals is not sufficiently developed or studied, nor the potential for such chemicals to cause harm to humans and the ecosystem.”

On industry’s use of groundwater obtained from private land owners: “Right now no one really knows how much water private landowners are selling to industry.”

On the possible risks to public health associated with fracking, given the lack of studies and diversity of factors: “A toxicologist who presented to the panel summarized by explaining that we don’t understand the mechanisms and we are profoundly ignorant about what is going on.”

Then there’s the challenge of disposing of the vast amount of waste water left over from fracking: “The capacity for waste-water storage is inadequate to meet the anticipated increase in production over the coming years … There is no solid understanding of the volume needed and disposal requirements for growth scenarios.”

Even where the panel found a lack of evidence, that also generated doubts.

“The panel did not see any evidence that shallow groundwater has been contaminated due to vertical migration of hydraulic fracturing fluid. That being said, no strong evidence was presented to the panel to definitively rule out the possibility.”

The panel also reported a dramatic rise in the number of “felt events,” or seismic incidents, attributed to fracking.

“The public reports of felt events consistently mention a loud bang followed by a jarring motion or short period of rumbling, rattling or shaking. The number of felt reports steadily increased from nine in 2016, 22 in 2017, to 52 in 2018.”

Nor is this simply a result of increased awareness of the connection between fracking and quakes and the ease of reporting such incidents.

The oil-and-gas commission, in its submission to the panel, also attributed the rise in reported incidents to increased fracking in a part of the northeast that is both more “seismogenic” and more populated.

On the seismic risks in an area with two large hydroelectric dams and a third under construction at Site C, the panel had this to say: “As explained by several seismicity experts, the real concern is not for catastrophic damage, but minor, non-structural damage which can result in operational disruptions and non-negligible economic losses. For example, ground motions may be sufficient to misalign spillway gates.”

Other concerns identified in the report include the dozens of water-storage dams that were constructed under the previous B.C. Liberal government with little in the way of regulatory oversight or proper safeguards.

Those are now increasingly subject to inspection and oversight, but the panel says more needs to be done. “It is important for public confidence that operators are not seen as being rewarded or able to skip important regulatory requirements that are in place to ensure safety and avoid significant impacts to the environment, by being ignorant or wilfully disregarding regulatory requirements and statutes.”

More, much more needs to be done in a large number of areas, all of it laid out in 21 sets of recommendations, spread throughout the almost 200 pages of the report.

But the panel stopped short of what some environmentalists have sought, namely a call for an outright moratorium on fracking.

Fracking, and the companion process of horizontal drilling, are the means by which the B.C. industry extracts the deeper, trapped-in-rock, and previously uneconomic deposits known as unconventional gas.

As the scientists underscore early in their report, more than 85 per cent of B.C.’s natural-gas production now comes from those unconventional sources. The New Democrats asked the panel to recommend new safeguards, not issue a stop-work order on a whole sector of the economy.

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