The Canadian Press
MONTREAL – Environmental groups will ask a federal auditor to shed light on chemicals used to extract fossil fuels in the emerging industries of shale-gas and in-situ-oilsands development, The Canadian Press has learned.
Three organizations will present a petition to Canada’s environmental commissioner on Tuesday with the hope of opening the books on how these growing sectors have an impact on the environment.
The expanding shale-gas and in-situ-oilsands industries are expected to make up a huge portion of Canada’s future energy mix — and they have been stirring up controversy along the way.
The petition aims to ensure Canadians know exactly what’s being blasted deep into the earth during processes that have sparked concerns across the country about groundwater pollution.
The environmental groups are asking that companies be required to report to a public pollutant database on the chemicals and solvents injected underground to access these resources — and how much.
The petition also calls on Environment Canada to share with the public what it knows about these substances and what it’s studying about them.
“It’s important now for Environment Canada to get a handle on what’s happening rather than getting down the road and having contaminated water or other environmental problems as a result,” said Gillian McEachern of Environmental Defence, which signed the petition along with the West Coast Environmental Law Association and a Quebec association against atmospheric pollution.
“If they’re required to report it, then at least you can start to understand the impacts.”
The method of unlocking natural gas from shale formations — called hydraulic fracturing or fracking — involves forcing cocktails of chemicals, water and sand deep inside horizontal wells. Analysts have called shale gas an economic potential energy game-changer.
Some 2,000 demonstrators marched through Montreal last weekend, calling for a 20-year moratorium on the sector over fears it will pollute and draw heavily on water bodies.
Quebec halted its fledgling shale-gas industry earlier this year following recommendations in an environmental-assessment report that advised the province to conduct more studies on the ecological risks.
Stiff public opposition to fracking has also surfaced in provinces like New Bruswick, Nova Scotia, British Columbia and Alberta, where one woman has launched a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against energy giant EnCana (TSX:ECA), Alberta Environment and the Energy Resources Conservation Board.
The woman alleges her drinking water has been contaminated and is accusing them of negligence and unlawful activities.
But the Canadian Society for Unconventional Gas insists the chemicals are used in small doses for shale-gas extraction.
The chances of them leaching into the environment are also very slim, added Kevin Heffernan, the organization’s vice-president.
He said more and more companies are listing the types of additives they use.
But taking it a step further to report chemicals to Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory database would be too far.
“I think it’s unnecessary,” Heffernan said.
“Anything that adds costs and takes time, there’s going to be resistance to. And the last thing any frack company wants is for another frack company to reverse-engineer the fluids that they’re using.”
The other fossil fuel targeted in the petition — bitumen taken from in-situ oilsands — is extracted from wells using steam and sometimes a combination of steam and solvents.
Last year, nearly half of oilsands bitumen was extracted from open-pit mines, but that’s changing. Starting in 2016, in-situ production will eclipse oilsands mining production.
The vice-chair of the In Situ Oil Sands Alliance maintains the industry has a “very small environmental footprint,” primarily because up to 97 per cent of the water used is recycled and the chemical additives are relatively harmful, like propane and butane.
Pat Nelson said the companies already adhere to strict regulations under the Energy Resources Conservation Board, so there’s no need for them to report to the national pollutant database.
“It’s tough, but it’s also fair,” Nelson said of the existing regulator.
“(In-situ-oilsands development) is the future and so it’s important for Canadians to realize how key this is because every jurisdiction in this country is reliant upon the oilsands.”