Let’s ban fracking in the Yukon

Yukoners Concerned about Oil and Gas Development believes that the majority of presentations recently made to the Select Committee hearings about the Risks and Benefits of Hydraulic Fracturing justify, indeed, make necessa

COMMENTARY

by Don Roberts and Rick Griffiths

Yukoners Concerned about Oil and Gas Development believes that the majority of presentations recently made to the Select Committee hearings about the Risks and Benefits of Hydraulic Fracturing justify, indeed, make necessary, an outright ban on fracking in Yukon.

The prospect of producing our own oil and gas may seem inviting, but the hydraulic fracturing that is needed to extract those non-renewable fossil fuels from Yukon’s shale comes with impacts to our water, land, air, wildlife and human health that we will bear during development and that will live on long after the last extractable drop is fracked out of the ground.

Since water is the basis of all hydraulic fracturing, hydrologist Gilles Wendling spoke of the “intimate connection” between surface and groundwater and the importance of understanding water’s movement. When Wendling said, “We are extremely ignorant about groundwater in the Yukon,” Currie Dixon, minister of the environment and a committee member, nodded in agreement. (Yukon monitors groundwater in seven locations, only one of which is in northern Yukon.)

Wendling said, “We must know the story of water around every drill site” if we wish to understand the impacts of drilling, the possible leakage of well casings, the removal of water from groundwater sources and the disposal of “produced” water (permanently contaminated by fracking chemicals) will have on the area.

Wendling made clear that damages to water systems may be permanent and irreversible. When Wendling asked, “Can we have shale gas wells disconnected from nature?” the answer is obvious. Finally, he reminded us that it is “important for us and future generations” that we “be stewards of water.”

Bernhard Mayer, professor of geoscience at the University of Calgary, and Rick Chalaturnyk, professor of geotechnical engineering at the University of Alberta, tried to reassure that successful exploitation of oil and gas was all about managing risk, making sure, in Mayer’s words, that “good baseline data must happen before development” and, from Chalaturnyk, that there must be “an appropriate regulatory framework” in place.

On the other hand, referring to industry’s claims to be able to absolutely seal wells and casings, Mayer said there is “considerable uncertainty” about these claims. Statistics from Alberta’s regulator of oil and gas also refute industry’s claims.

From 2005-2010, 15-20 per cent of wells inspected were not in compliance. Mayer also said there was “an astounding lack of information” about the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing.

That begs the question, “Why would you risk allowing hydraulic fracturing when there are so many unknowns?”

When asked if fracking can be done safely, Adam Goehner of the Pembina Institute responded, “We don’t have enough information” to answer the question. He described how rapid technological change has created gaps in knowledge.

He also emphasized the need to understand the hydrology of an area before any development takes place and he warned of the “ecological threshold” where “a small change in external conditions causes rapid change in an ecosystem which may no longer be able to return to its original state.”

As expected, industry people from EFLO and Northern Cross spoke about the royalties, the possibility of jobs and the possibility of supplying Yukon with oil and gas. Refined where? Risks to the environment were minimized.

It was left to the Fort Nelson First Nations’ representatives, Chief Sharleen Gale and Lands and Resources Director Lana Lowe, to put a human face to the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on a community, the environment and a way of life. For them, fracking has been a nightmare.

They pointed to impacts on water (drawdowns for frack water have lowered lake and river levels), health, wildlife, air quality and vegetation. Gale stated several times that the First Nations still haven’t agreed to natural gas development in their territory, but it is proceeding regardless. She pleaded for the First Nations to be allowed to retain nine per cent of their territory in a pristine state.

In the United States where, yes, hydraulic fracturing is proceeding apace, the Environmental Protection Agency (the senior body overseeing the environment in the U.S.) is at last conducting a study “to understand any potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water and groundwater.” It is expected to release this report late in 2014.

The EPA readily admits that “further research is needed” into potential impacts on air, ecosystems, occupational risks, etc. Their website also states that there are “well-documented impacts in areas with natural gas development, with increases in emissions of methane, volatile organic compounds and hazardous air pollutants.”

Yukon, do we really want to go down this path? Why the great haste to embrace this harmful technology?

Yukon communities should demand visits by the Select Committee on the Risks and Benefits of Hydraulic Fracturing, so that you can express your concerns.

We demand an outright ban on fracking in the Yukon.

Don Roberts and Rick Griffiths are both members of Yukoners Concerned about Oil and Gas Development. They’ve both lived in Whitehorse for over 40 years.