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The Un-Natural Gas Boom: A Bridge to Nowhere

by Chris Johnson

The Un-Natural Gas Boom: A Bridge to Nowhere

Also posted by Chris Johnson:

I’ll admit I wasn’t fully aware of the scale of the un-natural gas boom until I arrived at an indigenous-led blockade of seven proposed gas pipelines.

The Unist’ot’en camp was built in the path of the proposed Pacific Trails Pipelines by a group of grassroots Wet’suwet’en people who oppose the incursion onto their unceded territory. Coincidently, the same pipeline right-of-way was originally planned to be used for the Enbridge pipeline, that is until the Unist’ot’en built their clan cabin on the banks of the Wedzin Kwa (colonial name: Morice River).

In the short year that the cabin has stood, Enbridge and Pacific Trails Pipelines have both shifted their pipeline routes to avoid the cabin, and several more oil and gas companies have announced plans for pipelines to carry un-natural gas to the coast for export to Asia.

(I have learned from one of my hosts here that the term ‘natural gas’ is a complete misnomer. There is nothing natural about the process of forcing methane out of the earth with sand and toxic water.)

It was my opposition to the various tarsands pipeline proposals that made me pay attention to the resistance that the Unist’ot’en camp have been mounting, but now that I am here, living in the path of the pipelines with these inspiring people, I’ve come to understand that the threat posed by the gas pipelines is far larger than simply clearing ground for the Enbridge Gateway.

Each of these proposed pipelines are intended to carry gas from the fracking fields of north-eastern ‘BC’ to several proposed export terminals on the coast. (There is not yet an existing export industry. The majority of the current gas produced is consumed by tarsands operations). Most of this area lies within territory covered by the last of the numbered treaties – Treaty 8, one of the few areas of the province actually considered ‘ceded’ to ‘British Columbia’ (though the legitimacy of the numbered treaties is considered questionable as they may have been signed under coercion).

The gas industry estimates reserves of at least 200 trillion cubic feet of shale gas in the province. Investment has started to pour in from all corners of the globe, and new export terminal proposals seem to crop up every month or so. A variety of factors has led to this explosion of interest in gas exports, one of which is Japan’s decision to scale back on nuclear power. While countries like France and Bulgaria (and the state of New York) have decided to ban fracking, British Columbia has embraced it with open arms, passing rules to allow more intensive drilling,  loosening environmental regulations and offering scores of incentives, including reduced royalties for deep drilling and credits for building roads and pipelines.

Without any real resistance from the opposition NDP, who refuse to take a stand against the LNG industry, the government of BC has made the extraction of shale gas it’s top economic priority. The impacts of this race to export gas to Asia have included treaty violations, poisoning of the air and water resulting in illness, increased carbon emissions, rapid depletion of the water table, displacement and harm to wildlife and a host of social issues that Dr. Eilish Cleary, Chief Medical Officer of New Brunswick has termed the ‘boomtown effect’.

In the settler community of Fort Nelson, rapid expansion of industry has begun to turn the town of 4,000 people into the Fort MacMurray of B.C. The boomtown effect predicts that along with the increase in jobs and wealth in a boomtown there will appear various negative social impacts. Increased rates of crime, drug and alcohol abuse, sexually-transmitted infections (STIs), and domestic violence; inadequate supply and quality of housing; increased cost of living; increased community dissatisfaction; increased mental health and social services case loads; increased hospital admissions; insufficient infrastructure; and insufficient capacity in public services, including policing, local government, social services, and health care. All these things have been noted in Fort MacMurray, the capital of the tarsands boom, and are already starting to appear in Fort Nelson, the capital of the fracking boom.

While the social impacts among the settler community are just starting to appear, impacts from the oil and gas industry are nothing new to the local indigenous communities. Caleb Behn,  a young Dene leader from the region and a law student at the University of Victoria, has been touring the world speaking of these impacts on his people and the land that they are part of. “First they came for the trees, they came for the gold, they came for the furs, they came for the children, they came for the oil, they came for the gas, and then they came for the water. They use the water to fracture mother earth.” Caleb says in the upcoming documentary ‘Fractured Land’. In another interview he says: “The land that I grew up in, the land that I thought of as normal by our standards was not. There used to be way more moose and more everything, more beaver, more martins. I always knew that our land was being significantly impacted. There’s a lot of impact because there’s more and more and more development; there’s more forestry, way more petroleum development roads – and with every road comes a parallel increase in every other industry and of course non-indigenous hunters, trappers, campers and I’ll speak quite frankly, a lot of the oil industry guys that I see in our territory aren’t very progressive people; they like big power toys; they like big trucks; they like big guns and they don’t like Indians and they like to mess up the land.”

The public is starting to gain awareness of the impacts of hydraulic fracturing. Many will remember the scene in the film “Gasland” where a person living near a fracking well lights their drinking water on fire. This is the result of a host of toxic chemicals that the gas companies pump into the ground as part of the process to force methane out of the deep shale. While many of these chemicals are known (and toxic), others are protected from disclosure as ‘trade secrets’.

The industry and government have insisted that fracking is safe, and when this line of propaganda faces the light of truth and science, the song quickly turns to ‘gas is cleaner than coal’, another fairy tale that is quickly being debunked. This faulty argument has even been taken up by many mainstream environmentalists, who grudgingly accept gas as a ‘bridging’ fuel. Upon closer analysis however, this is just another bridge to nowhere.

Federal reports reveal that data on shale gas emissions is extremely poor and that “millions of dollars has been invested in these resources with apparently little understanding of some of the environmental impacts”  To quote journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, “shale gas fracturing is an ongoing science experiment with few if any controls.”

However, A 2011 report out of Cornell University did reveal that “Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20 percent greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years,”

Another climate related concern is that of methane leakage. Studies on heavily fracked natural gas fields indicate leakage rates from wells can range anywhere from four to nine per cent of total methane or natural gas production. Methane traps heat more easily than CO2 and is the second largest contributing gas to climate change.

Exposure to gas flares and leaks has been blamed for health issues among people living near these fracking operations. In 2011, an article appeared on the CBC News website featuring testimony from several farmers who live near gas fields outside Dawson Creek who claimed the shale gas boom was making them sick. “You’re driving through the valley and … this doesn’t smell right, eyes are burning, you have this acid taste in your mouth, it can’t be good for you,” said Brian Derfler, a second-generation grain farmer in the area.

Glenda Wager is a rancher who was exposed to a toxic gas cloud after a major leak in 2009, and is still recovering. “”I can’t breathe very well, can’t work like I used to,” she said.

“[There's] pain in my chest, I can’t walk and talk. I used to be very fit, not anymore. I can’t train my horses — if they buck, I can’t hang on. I can’t breathe.”

Much of the environmental concerns regarding fracking involve water, both the exorbitant use of, and the poisoning of. According to a December 2012 report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, just one shale gas pad with a dozen wells on it will toxify the equivalent of all the water in Saanich’s Elk and Beaver lakes. The Fort Nelson First Nation, who collected 23,000 signatures for a petition calling for a halt to the natural gas industry’s use of water on native land, claims fracking activity by Encana alone could extract three billion litres of water annually from the Fort Nelson River. The Pembina Institute calculates that a single operator in the Horn River Basin could use eight billion litres of water per year.

Each fracking well has the potential to consume anywhere from 10-90 million litres each. To illustrate just a portion of the scale of damage this industry plans to do to the water supply, consider that just one company, Apache, has plans to drill 2000 to 3000 wells in the next several decades.

During the fracking process, a toxic brew of chemicals is injected deep into the earth, along with massive quantities of water and sand. The industry claims that the distances between fracking wells and watercourses provides a measure of safety for groundwater, but the United States Geological Survey and Environmental Protection Agency have both confirmed drinking water contamination from fracking, and reports continue to flow in from state environmental protection departments pointing to the hydraulic fracturing industry for the presence of chemicals like methane in drinking water sources.

If these chemicals can make their way into drinking water wells and watercourses, it’s only a matter of time until they make it into the oceans. The Horn River Basin and other fracking fields in Treaty 8 territory sit in the Arctic Ocean Watershed, as does the tarsands. Water from these areas make their way down the Liard, the Peace, the Hay and the Athabaska, which all flow into the Mackenzie River, and from there into the Arctic Ocean. In this sense, as many have noted, we are all downstream.

A recent study by an undergraduate student and two professors in Penn State’s Department of Geosciences also found that fracking wastewater contains high levels of radium — and barium. A geological survey report found that wastewater from fracking wells in Pennsylvania and New York were 3,609 times more radioactive than the federal limit for drinking water and 300 times more radioactive than a Nuclear Regulatory Commission limit for nuclear plant discharges.

In the Horn River Basin, which sits just south of where BC, Yukon and Northwest Territories meet, (the largest of several fracking fields in the province), 38 fracking-caused earthquakes were recorded between 2009 and 2011, which the industry brushes off with the reasoning that plenty of other large industries also cause small earthquakes and that it’s nothing to worry about.

And if that weren’t enough, one of the more overlooked aspects of fracking is the use of sand in the process.  A single well can use between 2 and 5 million pounds of sand. Sand is currently brought in from Saskatchewan and south of the border by train, but Stikine Energy Corp. is currently proposing an open pit frac-sand mine to be located 90 kilometers north of Prince George. Stikine “could gouge a 5 kilometer wide and 200 meter deep hole in the region’s sandstone shelves, dismantling what works as a massive natural water filtration system.” That sand would need to be continuously trucked north to the fracking fields, adding that much more carbon emissions to the industry’s  footprint. Workers in these mines, as well as in the fracking fields are exposed to silica dust, a carcinogenic, and silicosis, a respiratory illness that causes permanent scarring of the lungs.

Industry and government insist that fracking is a 60-year old industry, when in reality the process as we know it today is less than a dozen years old, and the scale of extraction that we are witnessing now is brand new, and just starting to ramp up. Impacts of fracking are only starting to be studied, and are more and more revealing as time goes by.

The impacts of hydraulic fracturing of shale gas are not the only impacts of the gas boom that the people of this region are facing.  The construction of the Site C dam, whose entire output would be consumed by the un-natural gas industry, has led a group of Treaty 8 First Nations to seek U.N. Intervention for treaty violations.

These are just some of the impacts that the un-natural gas boom has on the areas in and around the fracking fields up in Treaty 8 territory.

Now we get into the impacts of the pipelines that my hosts here at the Unist’ot’en Camp are resisting. Aside from the fact that these pipelines run through dozens of unceded territories, and the fact that the Unist’ot’en are determined to refuse these companies access to their territory, the pipelines have their own environmental impacts that the industry-friendly governments fail to acknowledge.

The Coastal Gaslink, which would bring un-natural gas to an LNG terminal being proposed in Kitimat by a consortium of Shell Canada, Mitsubishi, KoreaGas and Petrochina, would cross 320 watercourses including the habitat of more than 100 species at risk, such as white sturgeon, woodland caribou and marbled murrelet. Transcanada, the company contracted to build the pipeline (and who are building the Keystone XL and also plan to build another gas pipeline through Unist’ot’en territory for Malaysian state-owned Petronas), have disclosed that the pipeline would cross four major drainages; the Peace, Fraser, Skeena and Kitimat rivers. More than 20 species of fish, including all five Pacific salmon species and steelhead, could be affected.

Here in Unist’ot’en territory, these pipelines would tunnel underneath Wedzin Kwa, a salmon bearing river that continues to provide for the sustenance of the Unist’ot’en and other indigenous people, as well as settlers like myself who visit the camp. I drink daily from this beautiful life giving waterway, and like the Unist’ot’en, I would go to great lengths to protect such a blessing.

The race to get this gas to the coast that so many companies are involved in (leading many commentators to refer to it as another gold-rush) is part of a larger race to get fuel to Asian markets, where demand and prices are considerably higher. It’s a race that involves many countries around the world, including the U.S.A., Russia, Australia and Malaysia. It’s no guarantee that even if any of these proposed pipelines and LNG terminals get built that they will be able to sell the gas.

Once this gas is piped to the coast, these companies still face the challenge of processing it into shippable ‘Liquid Natural Gas’. If all five of the major LNG terminals that are in advanced stages of planning are actually built, they will require 50% of the energy that BC currently produces to process the 9 billion cubic feet per day of LNG that they intend to export. BC Hydro has already said that it cannot supply even a fraction of this power, so it would require these companies having to build more dams and more power plants in order to meet this demand. Altagas, one of the companies who has announced intentions to ship LNG to Asia, is already in the process of building three run-of-river projects. These projects come with a host of social and environmental problems of their own.

I’ll leave the last words to Anthony Ingraffea, a Cornell University engineer and one of the world’s foremost authorities on the science of hydraulic fracturing: “Don’t allow it (hydraulic fracturing) if it is not already happening in your region,” he says. “The threats to groundwater as well as the exacerbation of climate change from chronic methane leaks are just too serious…We should be ramping down fossil fuels.”

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