D ebate is bubbling up in New Brunswick as companies continue to explore the use of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” to mine shale gas deposits in the province.
The government is encouraging the development, hoping to boost job creation in the province’s struggling economy — through increased royalties and spinoff industries — while providing natural gas supplies for residents throughout the Maritimes and New England, offering a reliable backup power source to coal in these areas.
Fracking involves pumping large amounts of high-pressurized water deep underground to fracture shale rock, releasing the natural gas previously trapped within it. Though the fluid is mostly water, some sand and chemicals are mixed in to make the water more effective at breaking down rock. The practice was at the forefront of a protest last fall in the Rexton area, which took a violent turn when Elsipogtog First Nation members and anti-fracking protesters clashed with police.
As with many natural resource projects in Canada, the controversy is twofold. Local First Nations argue that industry and the provincial government did not properly consult with them before developing resources on their traditional lands, while conservationists and landowners are concerned about environmental impacts from fracking.
Environmental concerns include excessive water use and the potential for drinking water contamination — from surface spills at well sites to “flowback” of the chemical additives used in the drilling process and issues related to methane contamination.
The Council of Canadian Academies released a report in early 2014 noting that leaky wells “have the potential to create pathways for contamination of groundwater resources and to increase (greenhouse gas) emissions.” However, where wells are sealed, the risk of contaminating groundwater is minimal. Still, there is little information on the effect on waste water in the subsurface, as well as the risk of fluid escaping from wells that haven’t been completely sealed.
To support development, Premier David Alward pointed to a recent Deloitte study delivered to the New Brunswick Business Council, which suggested local businesses could benefit from shale gas exploration. The report estimated that each drilling site would add roughly $13 million to the local economy and an average of 21 full-time jobs.
With ongoing resistance from environmentalists, First Nations and the opposition Liberal Party — who have called for a moratorium on shale gas exploration until more information is available — the fracking debate is likely to continue through the provincial election this fall.
— Siobhan McClelland