No turning back

A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal hailed tiny Barnhart, Texas, as "an unlikely hub of the new American oil boom.” The writer, Russell Gold, waxed eloquent at how fracking had “given new life” to the unincorporated town.

A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal hailed tiny Barnhart, Texas, as “an unlikely hub of the new American oil boom.” The writer, Russell Gold, waxed eloquent at how fracking had “given new life” to the unincorporated town, population 200, now “chock-a-block with rail cars,” 80 of which will carry “about $5.5 million of oil.”

Elizabeth Grindstaff, a vice-president of sales at Texas Pacifico Transportation Ltd, owner of those life-giving rail cars, told WSJ,

“(Barnhart) is the center of our petroleum universe … My bosses call it the belly button.”

The belly button isn’t growing in population, but, says Gold, “businesses benefit from a workday surge in population as workers drive in from places like San Angelo and Big Lake.” So things are really booming for workers at “a post office, one taco truck and a filling station called the Big Red Barn.”

But oil giveth, and oil taketh away. This week, Barnhart ran out of water. The local water commission hopes to have a back-up well in service soon, but in the meantime the town is trucking in bottled water. Barnhart isn’t the first town in Texas to run dry, and it likely won’t be the last. The Texas Commission on Environmental Equality lists 30 communities that are in danger of exhausting their water supply.

According to the U.S. National Weather Service, reservoirs across Texas are at their lowest levels ever for this time of year. Most of the state has been in drought for the past three years. Farmers and ranchers have lost an estimated $8 billion. In one year, 2011, wildfire consumed 2,862 houses, and millions of acres of land. Trees are dying, roads are breaking up, the electrical grid is stretched, food prices fluctuate wildly, and unplanted fields have resulted in record dust storms.

Fracking a well takes between one and eight million gallons of water, which is mixed into a slurry along with sand and chemicals. About 80 per cent of the oil and gas wells in Texas are fracked. According to WorldOil, Texas has “over 156,000 and counting” viable, producing oil and gas wells. Some municipalities have restricted or banned the use of municipal water for fracking, driving drillers to shop around. One company paid $68,000 to truck 3.5 million gallons of water 50 miles.

The current drought is predicted to intensify this year. It might ease up next year as a result of El Nino, the cooling ocean current. Or, El Nino might fail to appear, as it did last year. In either case, water is not a commodity Texas can afford to waste. This presents a conundrum because the state has committed itself to an oil and gas economy, which today means a fracking economy. Oil and gas production is using up precious water resources, while consumption is driving global warming and contributing to the drought, but what are Texans to do? Throw their whole economy out the window? Do they even have that choice?

There is a lesson here for Yukoners as we consider whether to pursue a future in fracking. Disallowing fracking would mean the loss of millions of dollars worth of oil and gas revenue. We could be tossing away a chance at decades of prosperity, jobs for our kids, revenue for territorial and First Nations government programs, a way out of poverty for many. Allowing fracking would mean committing ourselves to an oil and gas economy from which we might never be able to withdraw, no matter what the consequences.

Here in the North we’re quite familiar with the boom-and-bust nature of the resource extraction industry, and we know the temptation to follow the boom, because it’s a better time than the bust. But what happens when the boom turns sour, when the law of unintended consequences kicks in, when going forward spells disaster, and there’s no way to back out except by pulling the plug on your entire economy? We might never face a drought here like the one in Texas, but what if 10 years down the line the caribou are threatened with extinction, or our groundwater is contaminated with methane and toxic chemicals?

If oil and gas exploration was a universal bad, there would be no need to discuss it. It isn’t. People need fuel, and people need jobs. These arguments will be raised in favour of allowing fracking in the Yukon. But it’s the very prosperity that the oil patch brings that makes it so dangerous. Once we open the door to fracking, does anyone really believe we’ll ever be able to close it again?

Al Pope won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best columnist in 2013. He also won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.