In May, the Council of Canadian Academies released its long-awaited review, commissioned by the federal government, which raised a host of grave concerns about the safety of fracking. The report pointed to large gaps in our understanding of well leaks, chemical migration underground, well deterioration, cumulative impacts of fracking and the safety of fracking chemicals. Despite these significant unanswered questions, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq dismissed the report’s findings and affirmed the practice safe, and that the provinces were effectively regulating it.

Fracking and federal jurisdiction

The provinces are responsible for issuing water and oil and gas drilling permits. After devolution in the Northwest Territories the Minister of Industry, Tourism and Investment is now responsible for oil and gas activities outside of the Inuvialuit Settlement Region. However, the federal government is responsible for oil and gas activities under legislation such as the Fisheries Act, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the Species at Risk Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the Indian Oil and Gas Act.

The Council of Canadian Academies’ shale gas report pointed out that “shale gas development is occurring largely in the traditional territories of Aboriginal peoples who depend on the local environment for food and water and whose culture may be particularly affected.”

The Indian Oil and Gas Canada (IOGC)’s statement on hydraulic fracturing notes that, “The federal government is ultimately responsible for environmental protection on reserve lands as well as the health of First Nations citizens living on reserve.” IOGC manages oil and gas activities for more than 50 First Nations. The IOGC must ensure:

Prior to oil and gas activities taking place:

  1. an environmental review is conducted;
  2. when hydraulic fracturing is proposed IOGC ensures companies conduct baseline water testing for water wells located within 500 meters of any oil or gas well prior to drilling; and,
  3. all applications, regardless of whether hydraulic fracturing is proposed, demonstrate that the environment will be protected.

During oil and gas activities on reserve, IOGC monitors:

  1. environmental performance through auditing and inspections; and,
  2. all aspects of oil and gas production.

Many Indigenous communities are raising concerns about how fracking impacts local watersheds, their food sources and their culture. Based on the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the federal government is required to obtain free, prior and informed consent “prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources.”

Gutted environmental legislation

Harper’s 2012 budget bills gutted much needed environmental safeguards and relinquished the federal governmen’s responsibility for many oil and gas projects. For example, the changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act resulted in the cancellation of 3,000 project reviews across the country, some of which were fracking projects or applications related to fracking.

One cancelled review was for an application from energy company Encana that requested permission to withdrawal 10,000,000 litres of water per day — roughly the same amount of water used by 30,000 people in a day — from Fort Nelson River for its fracking project. Fifteen environmental assessments were cancelled for oil projects on the Blood Reserve. Also on the list of scrapped assessments were two environmental assessments for the reversal of Line 9 which is expected to move 300,000 barrels per day of diluted bitumen from Alberta’s tar sands and fracked oil from North Dakota eastward to refineries Montreal.

The second omnibudget also scrapped the Hazardous Materials Information Review Commission, which was an arms’ length agency that registered claims for trade-secret exemptions for chemicals such as those used in oil and gas development. The transfer of the Commission’s responsibility to Health Canada called into question how carefully and stringently these exemptions could be assessed given the significant budget and staffing cuts at Health Canada in 2011.

Management of freshwater sources

Former Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver, and current Minister of Finance, has ignored concerns about drinking water by saying, “Fracking has been going on in Canada for over 50 years,” he said. “There have been 175,000 wells drilled using facking in that period of time. There isn’t a single instance of drinkable water contamination in that entire period.”

Yet at the Munk School’s shale gas conference John Cherry, Chair of the Council of  Canadian Academies’ Expert  Panel on shale gas, said while he didn’t think there were any water contamination cases, he admitted that ‘no one’s gone looking for them.’ Later in his presentation, Dr. Cherry made clear that nowhere has rigorous water monitoring ever been done. It’s easy to claim there are no known cases of water contamination if you don’t go looking for them.

There are over 20 federal departments and agencies that have responsibilities for water management.

Health Canada has established Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality. However, not only does the federal government need to develop legally enforceable drinking water standards, it to adapt drinking water standards to account for the potential contamination of water sources from fracking. 

The Canada Water Act coordinates the conservation, development use and management of water among the provinces and territories in Canada. Canada’s National Water Policy is badly outdated and a comprehensive National Water Policy that addresses the scale and pace of industrial water use such as for hydraulic fracking is sorely needed.

How we get a federal ban on fracking

Governments in Atlantic Canada have listened to communities by implementing moratoria in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland.

With the federal election slated for next year, we need to ensure candidates take a position on a hydraulic fracturing and listen to the hundreds of communities calling for a ban on fracking. The Green Party is the only federal party that supports a national moratorium on fracking.

On October 11, take part in the Global Frackdown, an international day of action, by calling your Member of Parliament or making a Fracking Wastewater Bucket Challenge video to demand a ban on fracking!

This blog is part of the Frack Free Friday blog series. To read the other Frack Free Friday blogs, click here.

Emma Lui - Fraser River

Emma Lui

Emma Lui is an activist, writer and researcher. She is a contributing editor with and a member of Cooperative Biblioterre. Emma is also the holistic health director for the Canadian Women...