COMMENTARY: Fracking and Earthquakes

The natural gas industry in British Columbia has come through a decade in which its production capacity skyrocketed because of a period of scarcity and rising prices.

Natural gas and LNG development spurred an estimated $8-billion in annual capital investment in B.C. and billions more in royalties, wages, and taxes.

Not only has natural gas provided these benefits as well as low-cost energy for residents in their homes and businesses. Thanks to LNG, it has a role to play that electric power whether hydro, solar or wind cannot do: become a product tradeable across oceans that will allow us to pay for the iPhones, orange juice and other goods we could never make ourselves. That's why the LNG industry is so important to British Columbia.

We've seen a mini-industry of false prophets spring up to contradict every claim that industry and government make about the safety and desirability of LNG and natural gas. These false prophets come and go. The exploding LNG tanker prophets initially won over some residents with false claims of danger that does not exist.

Claims that the natural gas industry uses too much water were resoundingly rejected in the Supreme Court of British Columbia. We also see elaborate studies "proving" that natural gas produces more pollution that coal, which is a preposterous false claim that any child could see through.  

Most recently, the prophets have seized on seismicity, or the problem of earthquakes, as a reason why British Columbia natural gas should be left in the ground. (In which event, we'll quickly be buying it from fracked sources in the United States, but that is another story...) 

In fact, it is not news that hydraulic fracturing shakes up the ground. That's actually what it's supposed to do – in highly controlled, precisely understood ways. Yet, there have long been rules in place to govern the potential for fracking operations to trigger seismic events around faults deep in the earth's crust where the gas lies.

Since 2012, British Columbia gas drillers have followed tightly governed procedures. While they are conducting a "fracc" (as the industry calls a hydraulic fracturing operation), if the ground tremors reach 2.5 on the Richter scale, heightened data inspection must commence. A 2.5 event can't even be felt at the surface. It is 5.7 million times weaker than a 7.0 earthquake.

In the extremely rare event (0.3% of the time) that the tremors reach 4.0, work must stop. Following that, the operators study the issue and find out what's going on. If you're concerned that fracking in the remote northeast corner of British Columbia could somehow trigger "The Big One" in Vancouver, there is absolutely no science to support that fear.

Highly specialized experts monitor hydraulic fracturing operations in real time, both on the local site and from data centres located in places like Calgary where such expertise is concentrated. Similar to the ultrasonic devices used at the obstetrician's office, sound waves produce a 3D picture of gas-bearing rock formations deep underground. To a trained eye all but the tiniest faults in the rock can be seen this way, and avoided. That's why seismicity, a real issue, is able to be managed so effectively.

Those who state that no human activity that creates measurable seismic activity can be tolerated must also be ready to ban the following activities:

  • mining
  • geothermal energy
  • hydro dams

Ultimately, the anti-LNG lobby is an anti-Canada lobby. It's one thing to be skeptical, that is how we test difficult problems. It is totally another thing to oppose a practice, like hydraulic fracturing, that has been authenticated as safe by earth scientists working with objective data.

Let's give a thought to the Canadians who work in scores of gas-related occupations that mean well-paid steady jobs and solid family upbringings for children. These jobs are just as likely to be located in our urban areas as in cities and include environmental technologists, engineers, water scientists and tradespeople. 

Today, 70 per cent of the natural gas we heat our homes and food with is from safe hydraulic fracturing. That is likely to increase in future.

If British Columbia's world-leading natural gas industry is exterminated because unvalidated public fears lead to inescapable pressures on politicians, our southern neighbours will have something to celebrate. That's because natural gas will still be needed in B.C. homes and businesses. The pipelines that today send our product to U.S. markets will be reversed, so that Canada is spending its currency on importing gas rather than building our national income by selling it.

From being suppliers to the U.S., and soon via LNG to the world, we will become customers.

How we will pay for our imported goods then, when a significant source of export income has been eradicated? That is the real question. The problem here is not that hydraulic fracturing is unsafe. It is that here we have an industry that grew very quickly over the past decade. Regulators in government did, in fact, keep up with seismic regulations - but they have not been effective enough in getting the word out.

Those responsible for informing the public about the rules need to fix this deficit in understanding and lose no time in doing so.

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