Fracked Gas is the new Coal

On January 29, 2020, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), released a new report on the health, community and climate risks associated with hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” for natural gas (LNG) in Canada. 

Written by Ronald Macfarlane and Kim Perrotta, in her former role as Senior Director with CAPE, the report, Fractures in the Bridge: Unconventional (Fracked) Natural Gas, Climate Change and Human Health, concludes that natural gas – particularly “fracked gas” – can no longer be viewed as a bridge fuel to a carbon-neutral future.  

Hydraulic fracking involves the use of deep wells, horizontal drilling, and the injection of water, sand, and often toxic chemicals under high pressure.  The process is designed to shatter rock to release natural gas trapped below impermeable rock.  Canada is the world’s fourth largest producer of natural gas. In 2018, more than two thirds of that gas was “fracked gas” from Northeastern BC.

From a health perspective, the report finds that:

  • Over 1,000 different chemicals have been used in fracking fluids. Some are known or suspected to cause cancer, negatively affect reproduction or the development of children, or disrupt hormones.
  • Air pollutants, which can be emitted from several sources at a fracking well site, include those which contribute to smog, diesel exhaust, radon, benzene, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heavy metals.
  • Fracking is a water-intensive process that can put incredible pressure on local water supplies
  • Local water supplies have been known to become contaminated during the construction of wells or from a failure in well equipment, particularly when wells have been abandoned.
  • There have been many instances of earthquakes caused by fracking in Canada.
  • Work in the oil and gas industry is much more dangerous than in other sectors.  
  • A 2019 systematic review of health studies directed at fracking for natural gas found the strongest evidence for: adverse impacts on pregnancy; birth outcomes such as high-risk pregnancy, preterm births, and possibly low birth weight; and asthma exacerbations.
  • A 2016 systematic review of health studies for all oil and gas development concluded that there is “moderate evidence” for: an increased risk of preterm births, miscarriages, birth defects, decreased semen quality; and an increased incidence of prostate cancer from occupational or community exposures.
  • There is evidence which suggests that fracking may increase the risk of acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) among children whose mothers live in close proximity to oil and gas wells during pregnancy.
  • Communities near oil and gas development can experience a “boom town” effect. The rapid changes from an influx of people, industrial-type activity, and changes to the local community can be particularly difficult for Indigenous people who rely upon the land for their food, health, and well-being.

Natural gas, which is mostly methane, used to be viewed as a bridge fuel to a low carbon future. However, that was before evidence demonstrated that significant quantities of methane can be released as fugitive or intentional emissions during the drilling, extraction, transportation and use of natural gas. When it comes to climate impacts, these emissions are far more harmful than carbon dioxide (CO2) because methane’s global warming potential is 86 times that of CO2 over a 20-year time frame.

Several studies suggest that releases of methane from the oil and gas sector have been greatly underestimated. Since 2007, global methane emissions have been rising, which will make it even more challenging to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Evidence indicates that unconventional oil and gas development in North America is contributing to this increase. These findings reinforce the urgent need to end our reliance on “fracked gas”.  There are now more cost-effective, zero-carbon options for a large number of end-uses (e.g. electricity generation, transportation).

For these health, community and climate reasons, CAPE is calling for moratoria on the development of new natural gas wells in provinces and territories across the country, and the phase-out of existing wells, as needed to meet our climate commitments.

Prepared by Kim Perrotta, Former – Senior Director, Climate Health & Policy, CAPE, February 5, 2020