Photo: What's the fracking problem with natural gas?

It’s not unexpected that shooting massive amounts of water, sand, and chemicals at high pressure into the earth to shatter shale and release natural gas might shake things up. (Credit: Ari Moore via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with contributions from with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Editorial and Communications Specialist Ian Hanington.

At least 38 earthquakes in Northeastern B.C. over the past few years were caused by hydraulic fracturing (commonly called fracking), according to a report by the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission. Studies have found quakes are common in many places where that natural gas extraction process is employed.

It's not unexpected that shooting massive amounts of water, sand, and chemicals at high pressure into the earth to shatter shale and release natural gas might shake things up. But earthquakes aren't the worst problem with fracking.

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Hydraulic fracturing requires massive amounts of water. Disposing of the toxic wastewater, as well as accidental spills, can contaminate drinking water and harm human health. And pumping wastewater into the ground can further increase earthquake risk. Gas leakage also leads to problems, even causing tap water to become flammable! In some cases, flaming tap water is the result of methane leaks from fracking. And methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide!

Those are all serious cause for concern — but even they don't pose the greatest threat from fracking. The biggest issue is that it's just one more way to continue our destructive addiction to fossil fuels. As easily accessible oil, gas, and coal reserves become depleted, corporations have increasingly looked to "unconventional" sources, such as those in the tar sands or under deep water, or embedded in underground shale deposits.

And so we end up with catastrophes such as the spill — and deaths of 11 workers — from the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. We turn a blind eye to the massive environmental devastation of the tar sands, including contamination of water, land, and air; destruction of the boreal forest; endangerment of animals such as caribou; and impacts on human health. We blast the tops off of mountains to get coal. We figure depleted water supplies, a few earthquakes, and poisoned water are the price we have to pay to maintain our fossil-fuelled way of life.

As Bill McKibben points out, it didn't have to be this way. "We could, as a civilization, have taken that dwindling supply and rising price as a signal to convert to sun, wind, and other noncarbon forms of energy," he wrote in the New York Times Review of Books, adding that "it would have made eminent sense, most of all because it would have aided in the fight against global warming, the most difficult challenge the planet faces."

Some people, mostly from the fossil fuel industry, have argued that natural gas could be a "bridging" fuel while we work on expanding renewable energy development and capacity, by providing a source of energy with fewer greenhouse gas emissions when burned than coal and oil.

But numerous studies, including one by the David Suzuki Foundation and the Pembina Institute, have found this theory to be extremely problematic. To begin, leaks of natural gas — itself a powerful greenhouse gas — and the methane that is often buried with it, contribute to global warming. Burning natural gas and the industrial activity required to extract and transport it also contribute to increased greenhouse gas emissions. As McKibben notes, the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research concluded that switching to natural gas "would do little to help solve the climate problem."

More than anything, continued and increasing investment in natural gas extraction and infrastructure will slow investment in, and transition to, renewable energy. Would companies that build gas-fired power plants be willing to shut them down, or pay the high cost of capturing and storing carbon, as the world gets serious about the need to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Just as fossil fuels from conventional sources are finite and are becoming depleted, those from difficult sources will also run out. If we put all our energy and resources into continued fossil fuel extraction, we will have lost an opportunity to have invested in renewable energy.

If we want to address global warming, along with the other environmental problems associated with our continued rush to burn our precious fossil fuels as quickly as possible, we must learn to use our resources more wisely, kick our addiction, and quickly start turning to sources of energy that have fewer negative impacts.

September 13, 2012

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Nov 20, 2013
4:55 PM

How frustrating it is that even though we live in a democracy where majority rules (OK, the group that can sprinkle its supporters around so as to get a majority in parliament), the majority that rules only gets to rule people. The majority still lacks the power to make ineffective policy effective ($100 a month payments to families with little kids stubbornly refuse to create daycare spaces) and most tragically to cause fossil fuels to stop causing climate change. Even if Stephen Harper could get 80%, or 100% of Canadians to vote for him, the atmosphere and laws of physics would continue doing their thing, and the odds of climate catastrophe would remain 95 — 99%. I just wish it were some other way.

Apr 09, 2013
6:00 AM

I and 150 others attended a public forum last night In Sackville N.B. organized by the Tantramar Alliance Against Hydro-Fracking. The MLA for Sackville and 2 others in the industry were at the front table. Besides not answering the questions asked and reiterating ‘read the rules’ that have been compiled in the last few months plus the local newspaper was not represented in the hall, I felt beyond bad knowing we were all there to plead with the government, to not take our fresh well water from us.

Feb 09, 2013
9:42 PM

Having read more on this site, I see that our P.M. is also being badgered. This is a democracy, and in a democracy, the majority rules. I get the feeling that some people are not happy with the democratic process. Perhaps, they would prefer living somewhere else? I suggest Russia, or North Vietnam. The minority, living a fringe lifestyle, demanding unspecified changes with no alternatives,are welcome to find a better place.Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. Like the P.M. said, an enemy of Canada.

Feb 09, 2013
6:50 PM

With more than 30 years in the energy industry, the one commonality I see with all forms of energy is the constant badgering from environmentalists.Wind power? Count the number of birds that die each year from hitting the propellers.Solar power? Sure, if you’ve got a few hundred million acres you don’t need, and reliable sunny days.( OOPS, we live in Canada.) Hydro electric? Again, got a few hundred million acres you can flood? Fish habitat and water tables to get destroyed? Nuclear fusion? Yea, right. Coal fired power plants? Yea right. Bio diesel? Still producing carbon dioxide.Oil sands?Forget it.LNG? No fracking way. SO, starting to see a pattern here? Yea,me to. What I have noticed about people, is that some are hard wired to find fault. Some people are hard wired to find solutions to problems, but some can only point out whats wrong with the world.I have yet to meet a fault finder that actually found a solution to their “problem” Still waiting Dr, for a meaningful contribution, a solution.

Jan 10, 2013
11:14 AM

This practice has to stop

Jan 10, 2013
11:09 AM

This must stop

Sep 13, 2012
5:17 PM

As this is being written, further fall out from the 2010 gulf blowout is being reported, global warming is no longer a hypothesis, and yet we still hear politicians touting domestic oil and natural gas, especially in the US, as a panacea without ever mentioning the f (fracking) word. Renewable energy has been around since the 1600s in the form of wind and for at least 3 decades in the form of solar. It's not something waiting to be invented, it's just sitting there waiting for everyone to give it the attention due along with other ignored technologies waiting to be recognized. Being green is becoming a survival strategy.

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