Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Look Before You Leap: Quebec Government to Study Environmental Impact of Shale Gas Drilling

Good news! The Québec government will be restricting the controversial shale gas drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking", after a report strongly recommended that environmental and health risk assessments be carried out.

This is a refreshing change from the norm; I've gotten used to hearing about research reports that issue very clear warnings only to have politicians disparage or ignore them. These findings were released by the Bureau d'audiences publiques sur l'environnement (BAPE), an independent agency that reports to the Québec Ministry of Sustainable Development, Environment, and Parks. The BAPE provides information, conducts inquiries, and consults the public on projects related to the quality of the environment. In other words, they do good work that results in advisory reports for the QC government to consider.

Back to the issue at hand: natural gas is sometimes found in underground deposits that are so challenging to reach that the "best" solution seems to be hydraulic fracturing. A very deep hole is drilled in order to pump a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals into the gas formation. The liquids are propelled at such a high pressure that the rock fractures, allowing the oil and gas to flow to the production well. The fracturing fluids are pumped back out and into surface pits. If we momentarily ignore the fact that natural gas is a non-renewable resource and emits pollutants when burned for energy, then this seems like a pretty straightforward procedure to get at a useful resource.

But the real picture isn't so neat and tidy. Consider the vast amount of clean water irreversibly soiled with chemicals. Think about how toxic (and in some cases carcinogenic) these substances are: diesel fuel and its associated volatile organic compounds, methanol, formaldehyde, hydrochloric acid, and sodium hydroxide, to name a few. Ask yourself whether every last drop of fracturing fluid is extracted after use, or whether some stays behind to leach into groundwater? Reflect on the surface pits that hold used fluid: if they're lined, how likely is it that the lining will tear, causing further drinking water contamination? What if the pits aren't even lined at all?

In the US, people living in the vicinity of shall gas drilling sites have become sick after drinking their well water. Gasland, the documentary Josh Fox filmed to investigate the issues around hydraulic fracturing, shows scenes of tap water catching fire due to the high level of contaminants it contains. That's right: drinking water on fire. Scary.

In light of all of this, I'm giving the QC government a round of applause for exercising caution. Hopefully this sets a good example, and others will follow suit.

For more information on the report and the QC government's decision, read this article. If you'd like to learn more about the hydraulic fracturing procedure, check out this website.

Photo credits: drilling tower; burning tap water.


  1. That image of water burning: freaky. And people are supposed to drink that stuff?

    Although, I have to admit, I've never tried to light my tap water on fire... it seems like such a ridiculous thing to do. So perhaps I shouldn't be lobbing stones just yet... fingers crossed that London, Ontario has no fracking nearby!

  2. You wouldn't think to do it until you started noticing that your tap water smells like gas!!

    As for shale gas deposits, there aren't any in Ontario. Just Quebec and part of the western provinces.