Ontario NDP environment critic Peter Tabuns recently introduced a private member's bill to ban high-volume hydraulic fracturing (fracking) across the province. The intent was to follow the lead of jurisdictions like New York, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Quebec, which have put in place moratoriums on fracking until more is known about the risks and potential impacts to the environment and public health.
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Fracking is the process of horizontally drilling and injecting fluid deep into the ground at high pressure to crack shale rocks and extract natural gas or oil that would otherwise be inaccessible. The Council of Canadian Academies' comprehensive literature review on the potential environmental impacts from fracking highlighted several areas where knowledge gaps exist: fracking's impacts on surface water and groundwater quantity and quality, wastewater disposal, well integrity, fugitive greenhouse gas emissions, seismicity, cumulative effects and socioeconomic impacts.
A raft of studies seeking to fill these knowledge gaps have been performed in the United States, and many are currently underway in Canada. Although this research is slowly beginning to illuminate the real impacts of fracking, it has also demonstrated how important it is to do site-specific research. The impacts of fracking may differ based on geology, regulatory systems, operators involved, population density and pre-existing land uses. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to assessing the risks of fracking, which makes it all the more necessary to have better information, based on rigorous scientific research, before deciding if the risks are acceptable or not.
"We're internally reviewing what our plans will be and we'll go forward on that basis," Ontario Natural Resources Minister Bill Mauro told reporters. "We won't be going forward with a moratorium. The review will determine what our next steps will be."
"In considering next steps, policy-makers should take into account their long-term climate change goals and the type of energy mix that will enable them to meet those goals," said Faisal Moola, David Suzuki Foundation Director General for Ontario and Northern Canada. "Developing fossil fuel resources is a step back in light of Ontario's progress in reducing emissions, including eliminating coal-generated power and planning to put a price on carbon."
The Ontario NDP argues in a news release that there's no need to explore energy options that come at a cost to the climate, water and the health of local communities, especially when economically viable renewable energy sources are available.
Ontario is already on the right track with plans to permanently ban coal burning for electricity (the bill that would do so is currently being debated) and promoting renewable energy. Even if the province does not enact a full fracking ban, an interim step like a moratorium would allow for clear criteria to be set and researched while near-term regulations and investments that support clean tech and clean energy are prioritized.