Monday, June 24, 2013

Deer Lake Fracking Awareness Seminar Raises Difficult Questions for Black Spruce

From the 4 O'clock Whistle
     Thirty five people showed up to a fracking awareness seminar in Deer Lake on the 19th of June at the Hodder Memorial Stadium. Entitled “Facts on Fracking” the seminar presented a wide array of information on the history of the process and what is known about its potential effects. As those present learned, while some of the basic technology of fracking has been around for quite some time, slick water horizontal hydraulic fracturing is a relatively new phenomenon. 
       For example when companies assert that they have been conducting hydraulic fracturing since the 1940’s they are referring to vertical hydraulic fracturing. Horizontal slickwater “fracking,” by contrast, can be traced back to as early as 2002. Since much of the fracking fluid, which contains a complex mixture of chemicals (some of which are known to be carcinogenic or to have other health effects) remains underground after the process, the potential area affected by seepage into aquifers and towards the surface is greatly increased during horizontal fracturing. The fracturing could extend out as much as three kilometers, if not more, horizontally from each drill site in multiple directions, and one key problem is trying to control the fractures during the process. Several countries and states currently have moratoriums on fracking awaiting more information, as does the province of Quebec, and in many others there are growing demands for the institution of moratoriums.

Chicken Little?

     The presenters wanted to make it clear this seminar was not a case of claiming the “sky was falling,” instead stating that the potential damage of hydraulic fracturing, should it take place on the West Coast, could happen over many years. Chief among their concerns was protecting future generations. That said some of the evidence presented is certainly worrying in terms of the immediate future as well. 

    Dr. Ian Simpson, one of the presenters at the seminar, gave a particularly insightful account of the potential health problems associated with the process (an account based upon research of peer-reviewed literature). The fracking fluid is itself a source of concern (the exact chemicals added are often company secrets), as is the large amount of methane and other chemicals that would be released into the air by each fracking site; sinus problems, nasal irritation, eye burn and throat irritation are among the statistically significant symptoms reported near fracking sites in one study cited by Dr. Simpson.

Black Spruce: Disciplined Communication? 

     The seminar, open to all, came just after news that Black Spruce Exploration Corp., one of the companies hoping to undertake fracking on the West Coast, had essentially acquired Deer Lake Oil and Gas – the latest in several expansions by the company [The Western Star, “Deer Lake Oil and Gas acquired by Black Spruce Energy,” June 17, 2013]. David Murray, CEO of Black Spruce has been making many extensive promises, we learned, to residents along the West Coast as of late too, which may not be surprising as it appears he has invested - rather extensively - in the success of fracking here. 

    A Western Star article from last month made it clear Mr. Murray sees Newfoundland in terms of oil potential as being like North Dakota. According to the article he seemed to indicate that the population of North Dakota had nearly doubled in the last 10 years and that the unemployment rate had dropped from 9.8% to just 3% [The Western Star, “Oil company making a difference with presentations: Murray,” May 31, 2013]. A comment made by a reader under the online copy of that article suggested that there may be a discrepancy in the information presented, and a quick scan of census data from the U.S. does appear to contradict the information in the article. First, the current estimated population of North Dakota (as of 2012) is 699,628, it was 642,200 in 2000 and it was 638,800 in 1990 – so one fails to see how it has almost doubled [United States Census Bureau]. Further the unemployment rate is currently 3.2% in North Dakota and hasn’t been above 4.2% since 2000. In fact since 1980 the highest unemployment there has been was in 1983 at 6.8%, which doesn’t seem to provide real evidence for the idea of horizontal hydraulic fracturing as a great source of employment growth for a local population [statistics from United States Department of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics].

     Murray’s statistics come across as particularly troubling given his recent assertion that the Black Spruce board and management team had previously worked on drilling programs in Colorado, Texas, Pennsylvania and North Dakota [The Western Star “Black Spruce takes the reins in western N.L.” June 19, 2013]. It may be of interest for readers to take a look at the past unemployment rates – if this is indeed Mr. Murray’s measure of success for fracking – of some of the other states in which the Black Spruce team has worked on drilling programs. As of January 2002, around the time slickwater horizontal fracturing came onto the scene as a technology, the unemployment rates of Colorado, Texas, and Pennsylvania were 5.7%, 6.1% and 5.5% respectively. As of January 2013 they were 7.3%, 6.3% and 8.2% respectively [United States Department of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics]. 

      The Black Spruce team’s history is also interesting given the many worrying complaints, news pieces, and peer-reviewed articles, now emerging about the health impacts of fracking technology coming from these very same states [for example see: Ellen Cantarow “Fracking Ourselves to Death in Pennsylvania,” May 2, 2013].

     The seminar in Deer Lake also addressed the issue of job creation, but presented evidence that most of the jobs created during fracking operations would probably go to specialists brought into the Province from elsewhere on a temporary basis, and would not be long term, something there is evidence to suggest [see for instance Barth, New Solutions, Vol. 23(1) 85-101, 2013]. 

     Meanwhile the chairman of Black Spruce’s partner company, Shoal Point Energy’s Davidson Kelly, has gained negative attention recently after a CBC article cited the following quote from a report by Australian Commissioner Terence Cole, a report tabled in the Australian Parliament; “On the evidence before me, Mr. Davidson Kelly is a thoroughly disreputable man with no commercial morality.” [CBC News, “Fracking firm chairman cited for role in UN-Iraq scandal,” June 11, 2013].  

Has Fracking Been Conducted Safely in Canada?

       The seminar also challenged claims that fracking has occurred elsewhere in Canada without any local water supply damage, something Canadian Society for Unconventional Resources president, Kevin Heffernan, recently implied in the above coverage from the Western Star [June 19, 2013]. In fact the National Farmers Union of Alberta asked in 2012 for a moratorium on fracking due to firsthand accounts of water contamination, accounts that rarely see the light of day because, as stated on the NFU website by member Jan Slomp: “the oil and gas companies usually force farmers to sign confidentiality agreements in return for replacement of their water wells” [NFU Website: “Hydraulic Fracking a Danger to Water, Food, Farmland: NFU Calls For Moratorium”]. 

     Given current research being undertaken into water contamination across Canada, and the cases only now coming to light (both in Canada and in several U.S. states), it would definitely appear highly premature for anyone to suggest that no contamination of water supplies has taken place.

General Impressions

     The question of whether or not to proceed with fracking is a troubling one: it may be that further regulations are needed, or it may very well be that fracking is simply an undertaking not worth the detriments it creates. One way or the other more information is being uncovered about this relatively new process – information and peer-reviewed studies the companies themselves don’t seem to want to discuss – or are surprisingly un-aware of.

    The overall feeling of the presentation? While many were concerned, those who have concerns are certainly open to a discussion of both the pros and cons of fracking. Graham Oliver, another presenter, wanted to make it clear to the audience during the question and answer period at the end that they should feel free to voice any questions or make any statements they wanted, whether in support of or against fracking. “We accept all opinions here and welcome them” he said. Indeed sheets of paper with links to online copies of the key sources used in the health portion of the seminar were handed out, and audience members were encouraged to further research the subject and come to their own conclusions. The presentation, in short, was not just about presenting “the facts,” it was about letting people know where those facts are coming from, and there was general atmosphere of free speech and dialog.     

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