Commentary  Fossil fuels are a dinosaurian menace

Natural gas is often touted as oil and coal’s cleaner, less polluting fossil fuel sibling, but it’s far from clean enough. This fact was evident in the reactions of Quebeckers at public hearings last month on the provincial government’s plans to drill for shale gas in the St. Lawrence valley. As residents living near the proposed wells were vocal in pointing out, this extraction technique directly threatens the communities involved. The provincial government should therefore listen to its citizens and impose a moratorium on shale gas extraction – but ultimately look beyond fossil fuel energy sources altogether.

The extraction method in question is known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Trapped in shale deep below the earth’s surface, the gas is dislodged by a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals forced into the rock at high pressure until it fractures, releasing the pockets of gas so it can be pumped to a well-head at the surface.

Most immediately, the process threatens safe water supply: gas can leak out of the fractured shale and wells and into regional water sources. The levels can be so severe that residents near fracking projects in Pennsylvania and Colorado have been able to light their tap water on fire.

There have also been reports of reduced air quality and the proliferation of toxic waste from used-up fracking fluids in American regions where shale gas extraction has taken place; environmental and citizen’s groups have expressed vigorous opposition in places where this has happened. If developed in Quebec, people living near such projects can expect to see similar effects – American experiences with fracking are a clear sign that we should reconsider the project.

Quebec’s Liberal government present natural gas as a clean, ecological energy source to back up their support for shale gas expansion. In reality, however, natural gas is hardly an environmental panacea. Though it releases less CO2 than coal or oil, gas emission still significantly contributes to climate change. If governments are going to be serious about changing the way energy is consumed, they’re going to have to do a lot more than switching from one form of fossil fuel to a marginally better one.

For now, citizen outcry has slowed some of the momentum behind shale gas extraction in this province, but the government has not yet made any steps toward regulation. As a recently released University of Toronto study put it, “Government has notably embraced the benefits of shale production while studiously avoiding any serious discussion of its considerable environmental costs.”

The Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environment (BAPE), Quebec’s official environmental agency, has studied the impact of fracking in the U.S. Though temporary, New York’s recently announced moratorium is a prudent example for Quebec. The environmental agency needs to be given real, binding power to protect the public from the risk of shale gas fracking.

BAPE will be holding another public hearing in November. Before then, write your MNA urging them to heed the citizens calling for a moratorium on shale gas, and to invest the province’s resources in energy sources that don’t destroy people’s lives and the environment.