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FRACKING AND TAR SANDS: TWIN THREATS TO SASKATCHEWAN WATER Part 1

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A workshop on “Saskatchewan Oil Impacts” was held in Regina January 24-25, 2014. It was organized by oil industry researchers Emily Eaton, geography professor from Regina and political science professor Angela Carter from Waterloo. It was attended by over 50 people from nearly twenty organizations across the province. Those attending ranged from indigenous and naturalist to surface rights and ecumenical groups.

The workshop began with a presentation “From the Front Lines of Fracktivism” by Elaine and Dan Thomas. The Thomas’s are from Cochrane, Alberta, an area under siege from fracking. Their rural retirement home west of Calgary is surrounded by toxic flaring from fracked wells. Retired from the industry, Dan spoke of the industry’s use of “speed, stealth and secrecy” to accomplish its goals. The Thomas’s described how they have been largely powerless to deal with the assault by the oil industry while it has government processes and policies on its side.

There was a panel discussion with Marilyn Wapass of the oil-intensive Lloydminister area’s Thunderchild First Nation, naturalist and grass land advocate Trevor Herriot and the Thomas’s. There was extensive discussion about how surface rights don’t protect land owners or the land and how “duty to consult” is not being respected or ensuring consent from indigenous people. Discussion groups were challenged to outline their concerns, consider what information was still missing and propose collective responses. The overarching concerns included reducing Saskatchewan’s huge per capita carbon footprint and protecting water for future generations.

FRACKING THREAT

Fracking involves the massive use of water, toxic chemicals and sand which are pumped under high pressure to fracture shale rock or coal beds to extract natural gas. Water is contaminated and the toxic chemicals and other harmful substances including radioactivity can get back to the surface. Such fracking is also used, including throughout southern Saskatchewan, to extract oil that previously wasn’t economically-recoverable. A non-chemical form of fracking which involves pumping fluids into injection wells to build up pressure can also be used in solution potash mines. Risks of brine contamination of aquifers and of destabilizing underground caverns left from conventional mines remain. Fracking is expanding globally, especially by the two energy gluttons the U.S. and China. As trade campaigner Stuart Trew says in the April 2013 Council of Canadians publication Canadian Perspectives, it “creates an illusion of energy security while actually worsening the climate crisis.” The new technology has increased the economically-recoverable fossil fuels and it has pretty much priced nuclear power out of the electrical business. It may even come to challenge the profitability of the tar sands but it is also slowing down the conversion to renewables. However, as the threats fracking presents to water, habitats and health become better known, moratoriums and outright bans are increasing.

BANS & MORATORIUM

Water campaigner Emma Lui reports that France and Bulgaria now ban fracking altogether, while moratoriums have been declared in Ireland, the Czech Republic and Denmark. Germany’s state of North Rhine-Westphalia declared a moratorium; even the alcohol industry said fracking threatened the water that was needed for quality beer. In 2012 Vermont became the first U.S. state to ban fracking. There is now a state-wide moratorium in New York after 200 municipalities passed resolutions against fracking.

CANADIAN OPPOSITION

There has been a Quebec moratorium since 2011, but the industry is fighting back. Calgary-based Lone Pine is threatening a lawsuit claiming $250 million dollars compensation for not being able to frack under the St. Lawrence River. The company’s lawyers are using its incorporation in Delaware to try “to access the investment protection chapter of NAFTA”. As Staurt Trew says, “We shouldn’t have to pay to protect ourselves and our environment”

Atlantic regional organizer Angela Giles reports that grass-roots opposition in Nova Scotia led Inverness County to pass a bylaw banning fracking. When Atlantic Industrial Services applied to Colchester County to release fracking wastes into local sewage they were turned down. Opposition to fracking in New Brunswick recently received national media attention. This opposition began when the Texas based Southwestern Energy attempted to start seismic testing without consent. An alliance quickly formed between the Elsipogtog First Nations, Mi’kmaq, Acadians, Francophone and Anglophone communities. This is reminiscent of past alliances to stop uranium exploration in the Maritimes and Ottawa Valley.

ALBERTA-BC FRACKING

The Council of Canadians reports that “171,000 wells have been fracked in Alberta since the 1950s”. As the Thomas’s Alberta group, Cochrane Area Under Siege Coalition (CAUS-C) has quickly discovered, it is difficult to stop the Alberta oil-juggernaut even when it threatens prime real estate. Since the election of the Liberals, B.C. also seems on the verge of an enlarged fracking boom. One of the largest fracking areas in all North America is in the Horn River, Montney and Liard basins in north eastern B.C. Minor earthquakes have been associated with the magnitude of the fracking. There are already ten proposals for Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) plants on the west coast which would fill tankers for exporting gas to Asia.

Fracking sometimes slides under the public radar because of the focus on Alberta’s tar sands and the threat of pumping toxic bitumen along the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. But there is one corporate lobby behind it all. The B.C. government has already approved the Pacific Trail pipeline to bring fracked gas to the coastal LNG plants and the route is similar to that proposed for the Northern Gateway. According to climate justice campaigner Maryam Adrangi, this suggests that an “energy corridor” is part of the industry’s and the Harper government’s end-game. There nevertheless remains strong indigenous and settler resistance to all fossil-fuel pipelines going through this pristine area.

SASKATCHEWAN FRACKING

Fracking in Manitoba and Saskatchewan has accelerated but Saskatchewan is fracking at a far faster pace. According to the Ministry of the Economy, there were nearly 3,200 horizontally fracked wells dug in Saskatchewan from 1990 to 2013. Most have been dug in recent years. About half are in the Bakken formation southeast of Weyburn and south of Estevan. There are two other areas of high concentration: southeast of Maple Creek and between Kindersley and Rosetown. This doesn’t include non-horizontal fracking elsewhere in the province.

COALITION POLITICS

The Grant Devine government left Saskatchewan with a huge fiscal deficit which took years to address. Brad Wall’s government seems ready to leave Saskatchewan with a mammoth environmental deficit which we may never overcome. Water is being treated as a commodity to be used by the resource industry for short-term economic gain without fundamental regard for the future health of the land, air, water, food and life itself.

We’ve barely heard a peep about this from the Saskatchewan NDP opposition. Are they afraid to stand up for future generations and for sustainability itself? At least federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has noted how fraudulent it is to say that fracking is regulated when there is only voluntary disclosure of the chemicals used in the process. He has further noted that available information suggests that “known carcinogens” are involved.

The grass-roots have shaken politicians out of their bubbles and delusions before. Without grass-roots Saskatchewan, the Sask Party government would likely be embracing nuclear power plants and Ontario’s nuclear wastes as “economic opportunities”. By the end of the Regina workshop participants were proposing a broad-based provincial, educational and legislation-change coalition that would work for five interrelated goals: 1) an indigenous-settler alliance, 2) independent monitoring of all oil and gas extraction sites, 3) a moratorium on all fracking, 4) a ban on tar sand and nuclear “development” and 5) policies to accelerate the transition to renewable energy.

Will we soon see a broad-based Saskatchewan coalition forming to protect our water from these threats?

Published in United Newspapers of Sask (UNOS), Jan. 31, 2014 #216

In Part 2, I’ll look at plans for tar sands projects in northern Saskatchewan.