Fredericton – Dr. John Cherry, one of the foremost Canadian authorities on shale gas, spoke to a standing room only crowd at the Charlotte Street Arts Centre’s Auditorium, on Nov. 17 at 7pm. The title of his talk was “Hydraulic Fracturing: Sound New Brunswick Experiment?”
This presentation was hosted by the New Brunswick Anti Shale Gas Alliance (NBASGA), an alliance of 22 groups from across the province. Jim Emberger, the spokesperson for the NBASGA, welcomed the crowd and introduced the speaker.
The NBASGA wishes to bring “the best in objective science” on shale gas development to NB and it has a two-fold mandate on the question of energy in the province: halting shale gas and the development of clean energy.
As a scientist and professor, Cherry is the most cited author on groundwater contamination and a foremost expert on groundwater science. His is also a pioneer in vulgarization in this science, one of the reasons why he was invited to speak on this topic.
More importantly, Cherry was Chair of the Canadian Government Expert Panel on Shale Gas Exploration that studied the science from 2011 to 2013 and released its expert report on May 1, 2014. The Canadian Panel had a majority of groundwater experts, and was made up of 16 members from 12 disciplines including 2 American panel members who subsequently resigned before the report was released.
Dr. Cherry gave his first presentation on shale gas in July 2013 in Moncton. He was invited by the NB Energy Institute led by Louis Lapierre at the time. Cherry learned the term “social license,” its importance and its repercussions during his visit to the province.
Cherry’s presentation in Fredericton started with a brief explanation about what shale deposits are and how the idea to exploit shale gas deposits started and evolved.
There are now 60 companies in North America that exploit shale gas using this procedure although, according to Cherry, many are presently going out of business since the price of gas has gone down.
Shale gas exploration has been stopped in many places around the world. New Brunswick, New York State, Quebec, Germany and France are some of the places where citizens have forced a moratorium or ban on the risky practice. Although it is being done in 24 U.S. states at the moment, exploration is more rare and, in Canada, is happening only in Alberta and northern British Columbia. Cherry notified the public that there may be exploration forthcoming in the Northwest Territories.
For Cherry, ‘fracking’ has gone ahead in many U.S. states because of the structure of the land rights; there is a clear financial incentive for private land owners to allow shale gas exploration and development on their land. There is no such incentive in Canada.
The Canadian Expert Panel has examined all the reports that had been released previous to its formation, such as the U.K. and German National Reports (both from 2012).
Cherry lends credibility to the scientists who are stating that the seepage of the fracking chemicals through groundwater is not very likely but this is not the case for wastewater.
Canadian scientists, such as Maurice Dusseault from the University of Waterloo, have led the study of leaks in cement wells, which have been deemed “unresolved” problems by the industry. There are scientists doing research on drinking water contamination but they are divided between what Cherry calls the “Duke” group and the “Texas” group. The Duke group has found groundwater contamination in homes less than 1 km from shale gas, especially “methane contamination.” This debate is never ending since there is no concrete science to back it up and we don’t know what the dispersement plume would be like, should there be a gas leak.
Another question that remains, according to Cherry, is about the intermediate zone, between the freshwater zone (that hydrogeologists know about) and the deep zone (that petroleum and gas scientists know about). For him it is worrisome since there is not much known about it.
As well, not one report done previous to the Canadian one dealt with the possibility of earthquakes and, although the Canadian Panel mentioned the science of fracking and seismic reports, the person who pushed for the inclusion of this section later resigned from the Panel. However, scientist Gail Atkinson, from Western University, says that recent tremors caused by hydraulic fracturing are different than natural earthquakes.
Cherry cautioned the public not to read the science pieces in national media, since the majority of journalists are not scientists. According to Cherry, “the absence of evidence is NOT evidence of absence,” something that journalists seem to consistently forget, especially in pieces about ‘fracking.’
Politicians are also misguided and, for Cherry, B.C.’s Energy Minister seems to be the most misguided about leakage of wells. B.C. claims to have the safest regulations with regards to wells, but has arbitrarily set the distance between a domestic water well and a wellpad at 200m, as has Alberta. Because there is a lack of proper scientific data, terms like “conservative wellhead protection areas” (from the NS Report) are meaningless.
Cherry’s conclusion is that no government in Canada (or anywhere) is ready to finance the type of multilevel testing that would be needed to test wells. There is a scarcity of what Cherry calls “mature science” on the subject. Alberta is setting up an arm’s length monitoring system for its oil and gas development, stemming from their own 2011 Report. This is a progressive measure. A related issue is that in the places where ‘fracking’ has gone ahead, no funds have been set aside for possible future problems with leaks from sealed wells.
Quoted by Cherry in his presentation, Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, from Cornell University, confirms that shale gas exploration is a large experiment. Cherry, who previously studied nuclear energy, published a scientific paper that mandated caution in shale gas exploration since the development has outpaced the science.
The Harper government had no interest in studying this topic, and Cherry says we have to “wait and see” what the new Liberal government will do.
There is some hope with regards to the science; Cherry is participating in some experiments in Ontario and Alberta to monitor some of the factors involved in the process like gas dispersement. Cherry also explained what other type of studies would produce some exploitable results that might be used to talk about shale gas development in an informed manner.
During the question period that followed the talk, Mark D’Arcy, from the Fredericton Chapter of the Council of Canadians, asked if the presence of groundwater and aquifer mapping should not be done before anything else. According to Cherry we have “third world country standards” in most of Canada for this groundwater mapping. Provincial and Federal levels of government put off the responsibility to the other.
A pro shale gas member of the public asked for clarifications on Cherry’s colleague Maurice Dusseault’s statements on well integrity. Although Dusseault believes shale gas development should be done “properly,” Cherry considers that this monitoring, cannot be done at a “world class level” at the present, as it might have been done in Germany had ‘fracking’ not been banned.
There needs to be a “rational Federal Energy Policy,” according to Cherry, in order for decisions about energy to be made because at present there is a “sorry state of science” in Canada. Government should “subsidize [energy development] that’s clean and has a future,” Cherry concluded. His comments were welcomed by the crowd.