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Ecology Action Centre wants NS to keep shale gas in the ground for now

A conversation with Jennifer West on the EAC's report to the Nova Scotia fracking review

by Erica Butler

Triangle Petroleum sign near Noel Lake, Hants County, October 2012 (photo: NOFRAC)
Triangle Petroleum sign near Noel Lake, Hants County, October 2012 (photo: NOFRAC)

This week the Ecology Action Centre released their contribution to the review panel looking at hydraulic fracturing in Nova Scotia. The report (Keep It in the Ground: Impacts of Fracking in Nova Scotia) recommends a 10-year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in Nova Scotia.  The Halifax Media Co-op spoke with Jennifer West, geoscience coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre, to find out more about the report.

HMC: It's already been seven years since we've had exploratory fracking take place in Nova Scotia. What went into the decision to ask for a 10-year moratorium?

Jennifer West: We really feel that we need more time to see the short and long term effects of fracking on our communities–on our groundwater, on our air, on our health, on our forests.  We feel that 10 years is really an appropriate time.  

Fracking has been used in the oil industry since the 50's, but not the fracking that we're using today. Today we're using horizontal drilling–directional drilling underneath the ground. And we're also using slickwater, a mixture of chemicals and sand and water, to optimize the amount of oil and gas that comes out of the rock. So those two things are really new.  They've only been widespread in the past decade.

We can't get a really good sense of whether it’s wise for Nova Scotia to participate in this kind of experiment without seeing how it plays out in other areas first. It would be irresponsible of us to rush into this and use up the very last of our oil and gas resources before we see how it’s affecting these other areas.

Is a 10-year moratorium enough?

I think it's a good start.  We're already starting to see some of the short term impacts.

Right now there's a feeling that we need to rush and start developing our oil and gas using this new technology right away, but I think in 10 years we'll be able to have a much clearer and calmer discussion about whether we want to use fracking, and whether we want to extract our last fossil fuels.  

Natural gas is usually viewed as a cleaner fuel, definitely better than, say, bunker C oil.  Why is there still concern over greenhouse gas emissions when it comes to fracking for natural gas?

There's two different flavours, if you will, of natural gas.  There's conventional natural gas - that's naturally concentrated in a pocket underground. You don't need a lot of wells to drill down and extract it. You can kind of suck it up with a straw.

Unconventional natural gas is really still part of the rock matrix, part of the fabric of the rock.  And it's really difficult to remove it from that fabric.

When we talk about fracking we’re talking about the unconventional flavour of natural gas.  There's large areas of it, and very small amounts that you can actually extract.  

Natural gas would be a great bridge fuel if we could find more conventional pockets of it. But we're not finding many of those, so we have to look at the unconventional.  And it’s difficult to get, it’s spread over a broad area, it requires a lot of wells, and it’s expensive both financially and environmentally.

The report points out a lot of discrepancies in information coming from the shale gas industry versus information coming from government or independent sources.  This includes predictions of how much gas there is, how cheap it will be to produce, and how many jobs the industry will create.  What are your main concerns with the information that's out there?

Another reason the EAC is asking for a 10-year moratorium is because the information that we have available to us right now is really limited in terms of its sources.  We can't just rely on industry to tell us everything we need to know to make a responsible decision about hydraulic fracturing in Nova Scotia.  

We need to allow time for independent sources to adequately and in a meaningful way review what's gone on.  And in a lot of cases they don't have access to the information and data. Industry wants to keep that information to themselves because it’s part of their investment.  

It’s important to remember we're only going to improve on the value of the oil and gas that we have in the ground.  It's not going anywhere. It's always going to be there if we leave it. And it's only going to be more valuable to us in the future.

Do you think the review panel will have access to independently sourced information?

I've been really pleased with how much the public is participating in the review.  I keep hearing of people sending in letters.  Different unions, societies and organizations are sending in their concerns.  I think that the panel is actually overwhelmed with the response from the public right now.

People are finding as much independent information as is available out there, and they're making sure it gets to the review panel. I've been really impressed and am looking forward to what the panel starts to produce in May.

Your expertise is in groundwater, which is one of the chapters in the EAC report.  In there you say there's a considerable lack of understanding of our groundwater in Nova Scotia. What do you mean by that?

A few years ago a national body polled lead hydrogeologists across the country, and asked them questions about the hydrogeology in their province, and about the groundwater and drinking water resources.  What we heard from Nova Scotia hydrogeologists was that they're really frustrated with the lack of available information on our groundwater.  

That was a huge red flag for me.  It says that we're thinking of allowing an industry to start in Nova Scotia without understanding even the baseline quality and quantity of our own groundwater.

There's a lot of information in the Halifax area, but there's no shale resource in that area.  It's the rural areas, the small towns–the Kennetcooks, the Pictous, the New Glasgows–they really need thorough research done on their groundwater and drinking water resources before anything can happen in these areas.  

Do you recommend that private landowners take it upon themselves to hire hydrogeologists to build up their own baseline data?

I've been at the Ecology Action Centre for four years, and one of the first things people wanted to do was test their water for baseline information about fracking. Initially I said don't do it, because we didn't have enough information about what to test for.  But it’s been long enough and I've seen a few resources come out that give really clear direction about what people can test for in their waters.  

So yeah, I do think there's support out there to guide people to take a meaningful snapshot of their water right now, so that they can be prepared if hydraulic fracturing happens in their area.

We have some of those resources available at the EAC and people can email me for that information.

What are the fears about hydraulic fracturing?

The fears are very real.

Every industry has an acknowledged amount of loss that they are willing to live with.  And [the fracking industry] has a really good idea of how many of their wells leak.  They have an ideal level of leakage that they can live with.

We know that 7% of wells leak in the first year.  When we put that together with the fact that companies need to drill hundreds of wells to make it economical, 7% is actually quite a large number.

In Hants County, Triangle Petroleum Resources  had proposed 680 wells to be the next step in that area. And so 7% of those wells would likely be found to leak over time.

After 30 years, industry reports that 60% of their wells leak.  

So again, we need to have a really good understanding of our groundwater and our geology to know where the water, or the contaminants, or the methane, is going to move to. And we don't have that right now.

So if someone were to come and say there's natural gas bubbling out of my stream that my cattle drink from, the argument could be that that was always happening.  If you don't have baseline data.


We're a coal rich province. Coal is an organic deposit close to the surface, and that can be associated with methane release.  So in some parts of the province that can result in methane release.  And in some parts of the province, I'm told by provincial hydrogeologists, you can light the water on fire, and no fracking has taken place there. That's natural methane contamination.

If we do start to see changes in areas where fracking takes place, we need to have a good baseline understanding of what's there to begin with.

Another impact mentioned in your report was the number of roads that would need to built for the industry.

It would be building new roads in forested lands, and a lot of those lands are already experiencing habitat fragmentation. If you're putting several wells per square kilometre you're going to further fragment and stress the natural environment there.

[The fracking industry] would also rely on the existing road system in rural areas, and will make a huge impact on the quality of those roads. Those roads were built for small towns, not for industrial trucks at the scale we would see with fracking.

In a lot of communities in the US and Canada we're seeing that road costs are far, far more than projected and predicted.

Farming is another focus area in the report...

Farms needs clean air and clean water.

We know that groundwater can be contaminated, we know that surface water can be impacted - you need to extract a lot of surface water from lakes and streams to support this activity.

And we know that there can be spills and accidents around these sites. There are a few cases where livestock have ingested fracking wastewater and gotten sick and many have died.  We've seen reduced milk production in Pennsylvania farms near fracking sites.  We've seen low birth rates in those farms.  We're seeing that fracking can have a big impact on farms near fracking sites.

Do you have confidence in the panel conducting this review?

I have confidence that they all have a very broad base of experience and knowledge.  What I have less confidence in is that they have such a short amount of time to cover such a huge amount of information.

It's a huge topic, and each area overlaps so much into the next.  You would really need to look at all aspects of fracking to report on the economics of fracking.  The same with community values. You really can't limit yourself to one area to provide a thorough, meaningful report on that area.

I really hope the review is given more time and resources to create meaningful reports from the panel to present to the Minister of Energy Andrew Younger.


You can send in your comments directly to the review panel here.  Written submissions are being accepted until April 30, 2014.

You can read the Ecology Action Centre report here.

And why not read more Halifax Media Coop coverage on fracking? Try these:

Triangle Petroleum CEO drinks fracking waste water! Company promises it can treat water, but Kennetcook residents still say 'Frack off.'     by MILES HOWE, March 6, 2013

NOFRAC: Full scale fracking would dwarf current wastewater problems Many community members remain suspicious of Department of Environment     by ROBERT DEVET, February 7, 2014

Trust in Wheeler? Cape Breton University President and Chief of Nova Scotia's Hydraulic Fracturing Review addresses NOFRAC's concerns      by MILES HOWE, December 13, 2013

Coal Bed Methane Extraction: “Don't Worry. It's Not Fracking”   by KEN SUMMERS, November 30, 2013

Follow Erica Butler on twitter @habitatradio


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