Oil and gas companies are injecting millions of litres of freshwater laced with thousands of kilograms of toxic chemicals and sand beneath the ground. Their goal is to extract natural gas embedded in a type of rock known as shale. This is currently happening in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and New Brunswick, and there are plans to establish the practice in Quebec and Nova Scotia.
At risk are ground and surface water, and human and non-human health.
The process for squeezing gas from a rock is labour intensive. It involves drilling a well vertically into the ground and then horizontally across the shale formation (see attached graphic). The fracking fluid is then injected into the well bore -- under enough pressure to peel paint from a car -- so that it causes the shale to fracture and release the gas from the billions of pockets found throughout it. The gas comes up the well, along with most of the polluted fracking fluids.
Controversy is growing, in Canada and the U.S., over the nature of the chemicals used in the fracking process, the sheer volume of water needed for the process, and the wastewater produced after the fracking fluid spews out of the well.
American scientists report that 65 of the 300-odd compounds used in fracking are hazardous to both humans and non-humans. Some cause cancer. These chemicals are mixed with the water which comes from different sources: municipal water systems, rivers, ponds, and lakes.
A typical frack job requires between 11,400,000 to 15,200,000 litres of water -- or enough water to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool five to seven times over. Most of the water that is pressurized into the well, spews out once the pressure is released. Each well can be fracked multiple times. Safe disposal is an issue, because the water returns laced with toxic chemicals.
According to the United Nations, the world, including Canada, is heading towards a major water shortage crisis -- due, in part, to water being used for industrial purposes like fracking.
There is no question these fracking fluids are highly toxic. ProPublica, an independent newsroom that does investigative journalism for the public's benefit, reported in 2008 that after treating a worker who got splashed with fracking fluid, an emergency nurse in Colorado ended up with multiple organ failure and nearly died.
The oil and gas industry, however, appears unmoved by these concerns. In fact, a daily newspaper in New Brunswick published a story June 10th, 2010 in which a representative of the oil and gas industry was quoted in saying that fracking in New Brunswick won't harm well water.
The fact is no one knows for sure to what extent the fissures reach underground or whether cracks made in the rock create a passageway for these dangerous chemicals to contaminate the groundwater.
"What is needed now most," wrote ProPublica reporter Abraham Lustgarten, in 2009, "according to scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency and elsewhere, is a rigorous scientific study that tracks the fracturing process and attempts to measure its reach into underground water supplies."
In 2008, ProPublica reported that there were over 1,000 cases documented by courts and local governments in Colorado, New Mexico, Alabama, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, where fracking is a suspected cause of drinking water contamination. This is also happening in Canada. After going public about her dogs refusing to drink her well water and of her getting burns and rashes from taking a shower, a woman in small Alberta-town Rosebud says that 50 landowners came forward telling similar stories. According to this woman, groundwater contamination from fracking is widespread in Alberta.
Because of the controversies surrounding this process, fracking has been banned in New York State until proven safe. It is disappointing that provinces in Canada have not introduced their own ban on this process in order to protect their citizens and our environment from such unnecessary risks.
Gasland trailer shows flames running from kitchen tap here.
Conservation Council of New Brunswick primer on Fracking for shale gas in New Brunswick.
This article appeared in ProPublica as part of its series on fracking.
Jean Louis Deveau, PhD, is from a small Acadian village called Metheghan River in southwestern Nova Scotia. He has post-graduate degrees in both the natural and social sciences. He is the co-founder of the Friends of the Mount Carleton Provincial Park in New Brunswick and an avid canoeist. He lives in Fredericton, N.B., with his wife, Esther, and sons Matthieu and Justin.