Despite protests, fracking risks are modest and manageable

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Appeared in the Toronto Sun, November 4, 2015

There’s never a dull moment in the debate over the safety of hydraulic fracturing—a process where water, sand, and a small amount of chemicals under high pressure are used to crack open rock formations, allowing oil and gas to be extracted. Hydraulic fracturing has launched a renaissance of oil and gas production in the United States that has led to considerable gains in employment and prosperity.

Canada, too, has tremendous potential to produce oil and gas from shale resources. The Energy Information Agency places Canada in the global top 10 in terms of technically recoverable shale oil and gas. But the adoption of hydraulic fracturing in Canada has gotten off to a rocky start. Some provinces have placed moratoria on the process, and many other voices across the country would like to see hydraulic fracturing banned everywhere.

Banning hydraulic fracturing, however, is not justified based on assessments of risk from both government bodies and academic research. In a recent Fraser Institute study, we reviewed the latest research on the risks of hydraulic fracturing to conclude that, while there are indeed risks, they tend to be modest and readily manageable with existing technologies and best practices.

Let’s take a look at some of the research findings of the risks of hydraulic fracturing, focusing in particular on risks to water and earthquakes, two issues which spur a considerable amount of anti-fracking rhetoric.

Recently the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the draft findings of their multi-year study into whether hydraulic fracturing posed threats to water resources in the U.S. The conclusion of the EPA was that while they did document some instances where the contamination of water had taken place, overall they did not find evidence that hydraulic fracturing was having widespread and systemic impact on U.S. drinking water, where the volume of hydraulic fracturing is far greater than in Canada.

Another concern raised by opponents of fracturing is the volume of water used in the process. But again, here the data doesn’t match the rhetoric.

A recent study conducted by researchers at Duke University calculated that water use for a typical unconventional shale gas well ranged from 13.7 to 23.8 million litres. Between 2012 and 2014, the annual estimated water use of hydraulic fracturing in the U.S. was 183 billion litres. Of course, without any context, this sounds like a large amount of water. But to put these figures in perspective, that large figure amounted to 0.87 per cent of total industrial water use and 0.04 per cent of total fresh water use in the U.S. per year.

Advances in water recycling can help reduce the amount of water used. By 2011, 56 per cent of waste water was being recycled in the Marcellus shale formation in the Appalachian Basin of eastern North America, and more recently, in some circumstances, waste water recycling is approaching 90 per cent.

Another concern regarding hydraulic fracturing has been the potential risk of earthquakes. Some recent events in British Columbia and Alberta have added to these concerns. However, a number of studies investigating hydraulic fracturing’s effect on inducing earthquakes have found that these cases are uncommon, and when they do occur, are often too small to be felt.

When a recent study suggested that hydraulic fracturing had triggered some seismic events in Ohio, opponents quickly heralded the study as evidence of the need to ban fracking. But the lead author of the study later stated that the events “are pretty small events, so an outright ban [on fracking] wouldn’t be appropriate.” Again, the hype didn’t match the data.

Opposition to hydraulic fracturing is no doubt passionate and heartfelt, but calls for bans and moratoria are unjustified given the results of research into the risks the procedure poses.