SCIENCE MATTERS by David Suzuki
• At least 38 earthquakes in northeastern BC over the past few years were caused by hydraulic fracturing (commonly called fracking), according to a report by the BC Oil and Gas Commission. Studies have found quakes are common in many places where natural gas extraction process is employed.
It’s not unexpected that shooting massive amounts of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure into the earth to shatter shale and release natural gas might shake things up. But earthquakes aren’t the worst problem with fracking. Hydraulic fracturing requires massive amounts of water. Disposing of the toxic wastewater, as well as accidental spills, can contaminate drinking water and harm human health. And pumping wastewater into the ground can further increase earthquake risk. Gas leakage also leads to problems, even causing tap water to become flammable. In some cases, flaming tap water is the result of methane leaks from fracking. And methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Those are all serious causes for concern, but even they don’t pose the greatest threat from fracking. The biggest issue is that it’s just one more way to continue our destructive addiction to fossil fuels. As easily accessible oil, gas and coal reserves become depleted, corporations have increasingly looked to “unconventional” sources, such as those in the tar sands or under deep water or embedded in underground shale deposits.
And so we end up with catastrophes such as the spill – and deaths of 11 workers – from the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. We turn a blind eye to the massive environmental devastation of the tar sands. We blast the tops off of mountains to get coal. We figure depleted water supplies, a few earthquakes and poisoned water is the price we have to pay to maintain our fossil-fuelled way of life.
Some people, mostly from the fossil fuel industry, have argued that natural gas could be a “bridging” fuel while we work on expanding renewable energy development and capacity, by providing a source of energy with fewer greenhouse gas emissions when burned than coal and oil. But numerous studies, including one by the David Suzuki Foundation and the Pembina Institute, have found this theory to be extremely problematic. To begin, leaks of natural gas – itself a powerful greenhouse gas – and the methane that is often buried with it, contribute to global warming. Burning natural gas and the industrial activity required to extract and transport it also contribute to increased greenhouse gas emissions. As McKibben notes, the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research concluded that switching to natural gas “would do little to help solve the climate problem.” More than anything, continued and increasing investment in natural gas extraction and infrastructure will slow investment in, and transition to, renewable energy.
If we put all our energy and resources into continued fossil fuel extraction, we will have lost an opportunity to invest in renewable energy.
If we want to address global warming, along with the other environmental problems associated with our continued rush to burn our precious fossil fuels as quickly as possible, we must learn to use our resources more wisely, kick our addiction and quickly start turning to sources of energy that have fewer negative impacts.
Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Editorial and Communications Specialist Ian Hanington. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org