ROUSING THE RABBLE: What is fracking all about?

While southern B.C. enjoys a steady supply of natural gas for heating, people in the northeast are suffering because of how it's obtained.

While those of us who live in southern British Columbia enjoy a steady supply of natural gas for heating our homes, the people in the northeastern part of the province are suffering because of the way it is obtained.

Gas companies now use a process called hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – to release the gas from shale beds that are thousands of metres below the surface. Huge amounts of water and sand and a cocktail of chemicals, including diesel fuel and formaldehyde, are pumped under extreme pressure into horizontally drilled wells to perform the fracturing. The process can be used several times in one well.

The process works but it is hugely damaging to both the environment and the people who live within close proximity.

Global TV recently ran a story on fracking in northeastern B.C. documenting the problems it has caused in the rural areas close to Hudson’s Hope, Fort St. John and Dawson Creek.

Ground water has been contaminated, toxic fumes pollute the air, earth tremors have occurred, greenhouse gas emission levels have sky rocketed and people have reported unusual illnesses.

A resident of the small farming community of Farmington, B.C. says a once peaceful rural area has been turned into an industrial nightmare. Drilling goes on day and night for at least three weeks and then the fracking begins – compressors whine as they build pressure and when the gas is released the air is fouled.

Fracking has been banned in France and although the procedure is being questioned in North America, it is going on unabated in most jurisdictions. Quebec and the state of New Jersey have placed moratoriums on the practice until studies can be completed. It is a non-regulated industry in B.C.

Millions of litres of water are required by shale gas companies on a daily basis and dependable long-term sources are rivers and lakes. Williston Reservoir behind the W.A.C Bennett Dam is one of those sources.

The use of water from Williston Lake on the Peace River (the lake formed behind the W.A.C. Bennett Dam) recently surfaced in the legislature. Independent MLA Bob Simpson (North Cariboo) asked whether there would be public consultation on the proposal from Talisman Energy and Cambrian Energy to remove 7.3 billion litres of water per year from Williston Lake.

In response, Minister of Energy and Mines Rich Coleman said, “There will be an extensive process of public consultation, discussion and negotiations with First Nations before anything would go ahead.”

Coleman spoke out of order. The responsibility for issuing water licenses falls to the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, MLA Steve Thomson.

Peace River residents have complained about the affects the fracking industry is having on their health and Rich Coleman says that his ministry is studying the health and environmental issues, however, he is on record as saying that he equates the health concerns to the local urban myths that surround the fracking process.

Ben Parfitt, a freelance writer and researcher, disagrees with Coleman. Parfitt says there is plenty of evidence to show that the procedure isn’t safe and he has published a report to support his claim. Parfitt wants a complete public disclosure of how the government and gas companies are collaborating in the Peace River region.

British Columbia remains one of the few jurisdictions in North America that has not demanded studies of the economic benefits and environmental and health impacts of the shale gas industry and the practice of hydraulic fracturing.

Independent MLAs Vicki Huntington and Bob Simpson have called for a wide-ranging public inquiry into the impact of shale gas development on water, energy, carbon emissions, government revenues, First Nations and local landowners.

They will have a tough job getting the inquiry but they have the support of hundreds of people in the Peace River region whose lives have been changed by the industry.

– Roy Ronaghan is columnist for the Grand Forks Gazette