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The federal government’s role in environmental protection focuses on issues of pollution prevention and resource conservation that cross over provincial, territorial, and indigenous government boundaries. Key focuses include impacts of toxic substances related to hazardous waste, air, and water pollutants (including greenhouse gases), ocean disposal and environmental emergencies. Conservation focuses include areas of interest such as species-at-risk and protected areas (e.g. MPAs). Key legislation includes CEPA, Fisheries Act, SARA and MBCA (ECCC, 2020). Listing something as a toxic substance puts it under CEPA enabling regulatory oversight. Therefore, there have been recent discussions to put plastics in this category.

To properly confront the necessity of environmental protections, it is necessary to look at many individual factors as well as their interconnecting links, and the way that they contribute to the continuation of settler-colonial ideals, and environmental racism.

Fracking is only one piece to the systemic degradation of the Canadian environment, habitats, and First Nations traditional lands.

What is Fracking?

Hydraulic Fracturing, commonly known as Fracking, is a process by which a high-pressure water mixture is injected into wellbores in order to fracture rock formations and draw out oil or natural gas.  Hydraulic fracturing has been used in Alberta and BC since the 1950s, but became commonly used in the 1990s with advancements in horizontal drilling (drilling down to the required depth and then horizontally to increase well productivity).[1]

It is difficult to determine precisely how much fracking occurs in Canada but it is a common technique in the production of oil and natural gas, particularly in Alberta and BC. In 2005, about 28% of oil wells drilled in Western Canada had horizontal legs (implying the use of fracking). By early 2011, this had increased to about 80%.[2] In 2017, BC reported that 87% of natural gas production was from unconventional gas sources (again implying the use of hydraulic fracturing).[3] While the low price of oil in the past few years has led to a decrease in fracking-related to oil, fracking is still extremely common in the production of liquified natural gas.

Environmental and Health Impacts:

Fracking contaminates our water, pollutes our air, and increases the risk of seismic activity. These negative effects on the environment are shown time and time again in academic studies,[4] and numerous government panels have highlighted the uncertainty surrounding the long-term impacts of fracking.[5]

Fracking degrades our environment and by consequence degrades human health. Studies of those living near active fracking wells have found lower birth weights[6] and increased prevalence of heart defects[7] in new-borns, as well as numerous adverse health outcomes such as asthma and migraines among children and adults.[8]

Moreover, the use of fracking in the production of natural gas releases large quantities of methane into the atmosphere, which heats up the climate over 80 times more than carbon dioxide over a twenty-year span.[9] The surge in fracking in Canada and the US in the 21st century has been identified as a contributor to rising global temperatures.[10]

Given the relative newness of fracking, we cannot yet gauge the full extent of its environmental and health impacts.[11] Because of this uncertainty environmental activists have advocated for a precautionary principle approach to regulating fracking.[12] However, while the full extent is unknown, the environmental and health impacts of fracking are clear:

Water Use

Fracking uses an extreme amount of water (390,000 to 6.27 million gallons per well for shale-gas, and 70,000 to 2 million gallons of water per well for shale-oil).[13] Chemicals and suspended solids are added to the water prior to injection in the wellbore and the wastewater from sites is therefore contaminated with toxicants, carcinogens, and other harmful substances.

69% of water quality studies of water sources by drill sites contain findings that indicate potential, positive association, or actual incidence of water contamination.[14] Wastewater is commonly disposed of in underground disposal wells, reducing the global supply of freshwater and potentially (though unlikely) contaminating aquifers. More likely, contaminated water can end up in the groundwater due to surface spills caused by accidents during the fracking process or while in temporary storage (e.g. wastewater ponds).

Fracking has contributed to the overuse of groundwater leading to water shortages.[15]

Air Pollution

Fracking leads to increased air pollution due to: engine exhaust from increased truck traffic [transport of water]; emissions from diesel-powered pumps used to power equipment; gas that is flared (burned) or vented (released directly into the atmosphere) for operational reasons; and unintentional emissions of pollutants from faulty equipment or impoundment-temporary storage areas”[16] 87% of air quality studies contain findings that indicate elevated air pollutant emissions and/or atmospheric concentrations.[17]

Methane

Natural gas is mainly methane, one of the primary gases that contribute to warming our planet’s atmosphere. Fracking operations for natural gas have been found to leak or vent 2-6% of the methane gas produced.[18] The massive increase in methane being released into the atmosphere in recent years has been attributed to fracking (which is largely conducted in the US and Canada).[19] As methane heats up the climate over 80 times more than carbon dioxide leakages from fracking have considerable consequences on climate change. For instance, a 2015 study estimated that North Texas’ Barnett Shale region leaked 544,000 tons of methane a year using a conservative leakage rate of 1.5 percent. That’s equivalent to 46 million tons of CO2.[20]

Health Impact

84% of public health studies on the health impacts of fracking contain findings that indicate public health hazards, elevated risks, or adverse health outcomes.[21] Early studies have found concerns with regards to the hormone-disrupting properties of fracking fluids; their potential for reproductive and developmental toxicity; and increased asthma rates, congenital heart disease, nasal, sinus, migraine and fatigue symptoms with greater proximity to natural gas development.[22]

Induced Seismicity

Fracking has been linked to increased seismicity both from the hydraulic fracturing process itself as well as the disposal of wastewater.

Between 1967 and 2000, geologists observed a steady background rate of 21 earthquakes of 3.0 Mw or greater in the central United States per year. Beginning in 2001, when shale gas and other unconventional energy sources began to grow, the rate rose steadily to ∼100 such earthquakes annually, with 188 in 2011 alone; scientists with the USGS attributed the increased rate primarily to deep-water injection of wastewater from oil and gas operations in the region.[23]

Banning Fracking while ensuring a Just Transition for Workers

To ensure Canada is acting responsibly in the global fight against climate change, the Green Party of Canada has called for fracking operations to be banned outright due to impacts on groundwater quality, methane release[24][25] While primarily a provincial issue, the federal government could consider seeking a ban on fracking on the basis of its shared responsibility for environmental management, and the impacts of fracking constituting an area of national concern.

New York, Vermont, Maryland, Oregon, Washington, Florida, Quebec, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, France, Bulgaria, Denmark, Netherlands, Germany, England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Uruguay, Argentina, France, Germany, Colombia, Costa Rica, Brazil, and Mexico have all banned fracking outright or issued moratoriums or partial moratoriums.[26] It is pivotal that Canada follows suit with a full federal ban of the practice.

As Leader, it will be important for me to champion this crucial Green Party policy and I would fight to ensure that fracking is banned as a method of resource extraction. Reducing our methane gas emissions with the shortest possible delay is key to combatting the climate emergency. We do not have time to spend with small sanctions and further patchwork bans. In a minority Parliament, I would seek to build cross-party support for legislation banning the practice.

As we transition away from fracking and other forms of fossil-fuel extraction, our commitment must be to leave communities and livelihoods whole. The Green Party of Canada is committed to a Just Transition to accomplish that. Investing public funds in sectors like Cleantech that hold the possibility of high-paying jobs that can quickly be taken up by oil and gas workers, using their existing skills, could be key to avoiding mass displacement.

As we set out Chance of a Lifetime: Acceleration our Transition to a Green Economy, the renewable energy sector holds tremendous promise in helping to facilitate a Just Transition for workers in the fossil-fuel sector in Canada.  If we invest wisely, regions that are heavily dependent upon extraction can leverage their energy sector expertise to capitalize on a variety of new opportunities in markets like geothermal, lithium and hydrogen among many others.

A Guaranteed Livable Income would offer the greatest security to the most vulnerable Canadians and is part of the solution to securing a Just Transition.  It would help workers in the energy industry by providing a safety net, income protection and facilitating retraining.

In banning fracking, we need a just and equitable transition that is centred on ensuring the livelihoods of Canadians working in the oil and gas sector.


Sources

[1] Scientific Review of Hydraulic Fracturing in British Columbia (2019)

[2] Tight Oil Developments in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin - Energy Briefing Note (December 2001)

[3] British Columbia’s Oil and Gas Reserves and Production Report (2017)

[4] Jake Hays, Seth B. C. Shonkoff, “Toward an Understanding of the Environmental and Public Health Impacts of Unconventional Natural Gas Development: A Categorical Assessment of the Peer-Reviewed Scientific Literature, 2009-2015,” . PLoS ONE Vol. 11 No. 4 (2016).

[5] Scientific Hydraulic Fracturing Review Panel, “Scientific Review of Hydraulic Fracturing in British Columbia” (February 2019); Environmental Protection Agency, “Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas: Impacts from the Hydraulic Fracturing Water Cycle on Drinking Water Resources in the United States,” (2016), p. 2-3.

[6] Janet Currie, Michael Greenstone, Katherine Meckel, “Hydraulic fracturing and infant health: New evidence from Pennsylvania,” Science Advances Vol. 3, no. 12, (13 December 2017).

[7] Lisa M. McKenzie, Ruixin Guo, Roxana Z. Witter, David A. Savitz, Lee S. Newman, and John L. Adgate, “Birth Outcomes and Maternal Residential Proximity to Natural Gas Development in Rural Colorado,” Environmental Health Perspectives Vol. 122 No. 4 (1 April 2014).

[8] Sara G Rasmussen, Elizabeth L Ogburn, Meredith McCormack, Joan A Casey, Karen Bandeen-Roche, Dione G Mercer, Brian S Schwartz, “Association Between Unconventional Natural Gas Development in the Marcellus Shale and Asthma Exacerbations,” Jama Intern Med Vol. 176 No. 9 (1 September 2016); Aaron W. Tustin, Annemarie G. Hirsch, Sara G. Rasmussen, Joan A. Casey, Karen Bandeen-Roche, and Brian S. Schwartz, “Associations between Unconventional Natural Gas Development and Nasal and Sinus, Migraine Headache, and Fatigue Symptoms in Pennsylvania,” Environmental Health Perspective Vol. 125 No. 2 (February 2017).

[9] Myhre, G., D. Shindell, F.-M. Bréon, W. Collins, J. Fuglestvedt, J. Huang, D. Koch, J.-F. Lamarque, D. Lee, B. Mendoza, T. Nakajima, A. Robock, G. Stephens, T. Takemura and H. Zhang, 2013: Anthropogenic and Natural Radiative Forcing. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, p. (714 Table 8.7).

[10] Robert W Horwarth, “Ideas and perspectives: is shale gas a major driver of recent increase in global atmospheric methane?” Biogeoscience Vol 16 (14 August 2019).

[11] Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas: Impacts from the Hydraulic Fracturing Water Cycle on Drinking Water Resources in the United States - Environmental Protection Agency (2016), p. 2.

[12] “FrackLNG: Experimenting with our health— What could possibly go wrong?” - Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment

[13] Hydraulic Fracturing and its Impact on Water Resources (2018) - Water Footprint Calculator

[14] “FrackLNG: Experimenting with our health— What could possibly go wrong?” - Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment

[15] Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas: Impacts from the Hydraulic Fracturing Water Cycle on Drinking Water Resources in the United States - Environmental Protection Agency (2016), p. 13

[16] How Has Fracking Changed Our Future? National Geographic (2020)

[17] “FrackLNG: Experimenting with our health— What could possibly go wrong?” - Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment

[18] Fracking boom tied to methane spike in Earth’s atmosphere National Geographic (2019)

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] “FrackLNG: Experimenting with our health— What could possibly go wrong?” - Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment

[22] Ibid.

[23] The Environmental Costs and Benefits of Fracking - Annual Review of Environment and Resources 

[25]  Green Party Election Platform 2019, p. 19.

[26] The legal status of fracking worldwide: An environmental law and human rights perspective (2020) The Global Network for Human Rights and the Environment.


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