Quebec’s fracking ban based more on exaggerated fears—not science

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Appeared in the Toronto Sun, February 27, 2020
Quebec’s fracking ban based more on exaggerated fears—not science

To say the least, there’s a lot happening right now in Canada that’s connected in some way to our natural resources. And not surprisingly, there’s a lot of misinformation about the affects of natural resource development. This seems to be a trend.

Consider recent reactions to hydraulic fracturing—or “fracking”—in Canada. In 2018, the Quebec government announced new restrictions on conventional oil and gas drilling, and a complete provincial ban on fracking for shale gas. Although there are genuine risks from fracking, the scientific literature suggests these risks are modest and manageable through proper industry practices. In light of the significant economic benefits available to Quebecers and all Canadians, Quebec’s fracking ban seems to be an obvious overreaction.

Many environmental activists object to fracking because it greatly expands our ability to develop oil and natural gas. (Between 2008 and 2018, the fracking boom in the United States increased annual natural gas production by 55 per cent.) The fear is that fracking will only continue humanity’s reliance on fossil fuels when we ought to be transitioning to zero-emission fuels because of climate change.

Yet, as noted in my recent study published by the Fraser Institute, this objection is totally wrong-headed. In reality, the boom in natural gas production has helped reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the energy sector because natural gas can produce electricity with fewer emissions than coal. Indeed, the fracking boom is the single biggest reason that the U.S. in recent years has had the largest drop in emissions in the world (measured in absolute tons, not percentages). Furthermore, although fracking operations can be associated with leaks of methane (a potent greenhouse gas), recent research suggests that once you adjust for higher production from these sites, the methane released per unit of natural gas output is much less than for conventional sites.

Besides climate change, the biggest fear is that fracking threatens water quality—a legitimate concern based on documented cases where fracking operations introduced foreign chemicals into local water supplies. However, even comprehensive reviews conducted by the Canadian Council of Academies and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called for further research and better practises to mitigate the problem. For example, simply lining the “surface pits” where wastewater is stored, or altering the depth that water is injected, can eliminate some of the problems.

Similar reasoning applies to “induced seismicity”—also known as earthquakes. Although the fracking boom has been associated with increases in measured seismic activity in certain regions of the U.S., the term “earthquake” is a bit misleading because these seismic events were typically very minor. And as was the case with the possible impact on water quality, here too the latest research suggests that the problem isn’t fracking per se, but certain methods of wastewater handling, which can be amended.

Another common claim of fracking opponents is that fracking causes noise pollution. Yet a recent study concluded that, inside homes located near fracking operations, noise from fracking is slightly louder than the hum of a refrigerator.

Clearly, the responsible use of fracking for natural gas can produce large benefits for Canadians and people around the world (more affordable home heating, for example). There are risks associated with many activities including driving a car and flying in an airplane. Yet the obvious response to such risks is to adopt sound safety protocols—not outright bans. The same logic applies to fracking.

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